An Observation by Philip Powers

Jean Renoir sees film as just one thing: a film. Not in its components. Of course, it has the components, but it all works together to create a finished film just as words work together to make a complete sentence. If you can’t find the right word in a sentence then it remains incomplete.

“A picture is a whole. You cannot say, ‘This is the beginning, this is the middle and this is the end.’ No. I believe a picture is a state of mind.”

– Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films

He believes that a good picture is a result of a strong understanding of what you want to show irrespective of the failings of some aspects of what you’re dealing with. He believes that planning shots and camera angles in advance is unhelpful for him. He lives in the moment when directing a movie.

Unlike many directors who start with an idea of how a scene will look, how it will be framed, and what will appear in that frame (generally called misé-en-scene), placing the objects and actors into that preconceived frame – he starts with the actors and the dialogue and rehearses them until he is happy. Then he introduces the camera and decides where it will be placed with regard to the actors.

Jean Renoir’s father was the famous impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and I wonder if that explains this approach. For example, a painter could artificially create a scene, by putting a bunch of fruit in a bowl and arrange the individual fruit in a way that is personally pleasing to him, and then paint it; or a painter could see several pieces of fruit in a bowl and like how it looks and decide to paint it; or a painter comes across a beautiful part of nature and because he likes it, he sets up his easel and paints what he sees. For Renoir, he doesn’t start with the look of the scene, within the frame of the border of the painting or within the border of the camera lens.

“I like to start with the actors. I like to put them in a certain mood.”

– Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films

He works with the actors in realising the words that he needs them to speak and understanding their actions, and only when he’s completely satisfied with the rehearsal, then he brings the camera in.

“You ask the cameraman and soundman to come with you, and you decide what will be the angle of the shot.”

– Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films

The wonderful long shots and tracking shots that Renoir employs in his films are credited to him as unusual, sometimes visionary, sometimes groundbreaking. When I read people’s appraisals of his work, it reads like some people evaluate his direction and his camera angles and camera movement as if they are painstakingly worked out in advance. If that’s the case, then Renoir denies it, because the camera angle “depends on the acting and not on the imagination of the director.” For Renoir the actors are the ones who initiate his actions as a director.

Most people talk at length about Renoir’s use of complex tracking shots and deep-focus photography as groundbreaking – and it was. But, interestingly, it didn’t grow out of his vision of how a scene would be framed and how it would look. It grew out of the rehearsals with the actors, and then having become happy with that, he brought in the camera and discussed with the cameraman how best to achieve the capture of the movements of the actors. For all the regard for directors who painstakingly compose the frame of most of their scenes and then place the actors within that frame, Renoir cares nothing for this. He and his director of photography may do it painstakingly but they do it as part of an organic growth which comes from the thing that actors bring to the scene.

With a writer-director like Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen, we know they like their words to be said the way they want them said. There’s nothing wrong with that. Shakespeare wrote his words to be spoken as written, as does a poet, as does a composer, but with music. With music, there may be a conductor, in the role of director (ie. music-director) who interprets the (words or) notes, but they don’t invite the (actors or) orchestra members to comment on how they would like to create the way they express the (words and actions or) notes.

Renoir does! He invites the actors’ comments and needs those comments to create the best scene he can create. His respect for the actors he chooses is absolute. In fact, one of the reasons that he tracks the camera along with the actors movements and wants deep focus is not because of a visual presentation he had in mind (in La Règle de jeu [1939] for instance) but because he doesn’t want to break the moment of the expression of the actor’s art:

“The basis of my work is the actors, who make me adopt a different way of cutting the pictures. I always try not to cut the film during the shooting. This is why I use tracking shots and pans so often. It is for no other reason than I hate to cut the acting of someone during his inspiration.”

– Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films

Renoir doesn’t take issue with directors who start with the frame. In fact he calls Godard a great director and understands that they are opposites:

“He [Godard] starts with the camera. His frames are really a direct expression of his personality but without the in-between worries brought by actors.”

– Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films

It’s as if Renoir’s belief is also completely opposite to Hitchcock’s belief. One of the most famous phrases attributed to Hitchcock (apocryphally, possibly) is that ‘actors are cattle’. A common understanding of Hitchcock is that he wants actors to hit their marks and deliver their dialogue within the frame he has previously thought about and decided is how he wants any given scene (as if it is a moving painting) to look. For many years, Spielberg also pre-determined the position of the camera by storyboarding most (if not all) scenes. But there came a time, for a film here and there, in Spielberg’s life where he threw away the storyboard and lived, like Renoir, in the truest expression of an actor’s craft – everything they bring to a scene – ‘in the moment’.

[I remember reading about the great cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond’s frustration with Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978). As much as Zsigmond lit the scenes, Spielberg’s vision of the look of every scene was so indelible in Spielberg’s own mind that the creativity that a cinematographer brings to lighting a scene, and being a significant partner in the discussion of where best to place the camera, is undermined. My memory of his comments (and I have no idea where I read them) is that Zsigmond felt there was little opportunity for him to be creative. He questioned the value of hiring a top DOP like him if you’re not going to use the skills that make him an exceptional cinematographer. My memory is that he wasn’t keen to work with Spielberg again (and they didn’t, having only done The Sugarland Express (1973) – separated by Bill Butler doing Jaws (1975) – and CE3K).

Sometimes cinematographers go along with a director throughout their career and sometimes they don’t. De Palma used Zsigmond four times, Cimino twice, Altman three times consecutively then not again. Allen three times, Rydell twice, years apart (on completely different looking films). Maybe he was an opinionated pain in the arse – and a great DOP.]

The directors who like to work with the actors as opposed to those who don’t are the two opposing poles that most directors fit into.

Kubrick, Antonioni, Godard, Renoir, Coppola: they’re happy to start production on a film without a finished screenplay and workshop the scene with the actors and let it breathe, and then film the scene.

Hitchcock and Spielberg and an entire filmmaking culture – regular Hollywood – liked to have the words read as printed without the input of actors although I’m certain it hasn’t always been that way with all of Spielberg’s films. A lot of directors do allow actors to bring ideas to the set and play around with dialogue. Actors like Dustin Hoffman and Edward Norton like to have so much input they even rewrite scenes and argue against the words on the page, mentally, and on paper. I think Renoir would have survived working with them and maybe even appreciated it.

Renoir wanted his camera, “hanging on the actor, following the story.”

With regard to his use of deep focus photography it came out of a desire to have everything in focus. It wasn’t some brilliant plan that he thought of because it would make him the genius who invented deep-focus photography. He brought the painter, the potter, the artist, out of himself.

“To be very frank, if we’re talking of aesthetics, I don’t like too many close shots. When I started in this business my first pre-occupation was to find lenses which would allow the background to be clear, not out of focus.”

– Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films

Reading this, I think his trademarks came out of an intuitive belief of wanting to see things as a painter (in that era) sees things. Most things are in focus – not blurred – even though the impressionist movement gives an effect which some people would call blurred. Therefore, as he wanted to place characters and movement in the same frame, often separated by distance, he needed lenses that could give definition to things not in the foreground.

I have read opinions that Orson Welles was influenced by Renoir’s Rules of the Game in some of his innovative and unusual shots in Citizen Kane. Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t. There are two considerations to be aware of. Rules was recut in 1939 after it’s initial screenings, and then a couple of months later banned in France, also in 1939. How would Welles have seen it? It was reconstructed and re-released two decades later. It was only then that it was re-evaluated and regarded as a masterpiece.

This brings up a different director who also wanted to achieve something that the normal camera lens couldn’t do which was to shoot in low light without grain: Kubrick.

Kubrick, with Barry Lyndon, wanted to film by candlelight, not light-bulbs. He sought lenses to allow the exposure of these scenes by natural light and candle light.

There are other things that Renoir and Kubrick had in common that link him with Godard and separate him from Truffaut, Hitchcock and Spielberg. But that’s for another time.

The above article written by Philip Powers is protected by copyright and under Fair Use, 10% of it may be quoted or reproduced, if properly credited, in another work. It may not be reproduced in its entirety in any form without the written consent of the author. The author can be contacted at © 2017