Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 9, March 2004



Martin O'Shaughnessy


Rethinking Renoir: A Reply to Michael Abecassis



Michael Abecassis

'Le Petit Theatre de Renoir: Martin O'Shaughnessy's _Jean Renoir_'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 8, March 2004


Thanks to _Film-Philosophy_ for the opportunity to respond to Michael Abecassis's review of my book on Renoir, and for the invitation to suggest how my thinking on Renoir might have moved forward since I wrote my book about five years ago now. I'll begin with the latter.


I'm increasingly fascinated -- predictably probably -- by the Renoir films of the Popular Front era; about how they still seem to speak to us with tremendous political urgency, and also about how the key films -- the breathtakingly great, astonishingly intelligent ones (_Le Crime de Monsieur Lange_, _La Grande Illusion_, _La Regle du jeu_) -- are still ill-served by depoliticising humanist readings, formalist accounts, or tired but indefatigable auteurism. What particularly interests me, and what I moved towards in the book reviewed here without developing it sufficiently, is the complex spatio-temporality of the films, their mise-en-scenes not simply of social conflict within history but of competing historical possibilities within the same, shifting story frame. The usual film-historical, formalist celebration of Renoir's use of deep space does a disservice to his work by artificially separating space and time and by treating both as essentially empty dimensions that the film moves through. What interests me is treating space and time as co-emergent and intrinsically inseparable products of complex narrative processes that cannot be reduced to mise-en-scene or montage, story space or time, but depend also on a complex spatio-temporal web embedded in locations, cultural references, dialogue, character dynamics, and artefacts.


What makes such an engagement with spatio-temporality so compelling when applied to Renoir's Popular Front films is that the period is one of such intense historical struggle that the shape of history itself is clearly undecidable, torn as it is between the disorder and injustice of contemporary capitalism, the deep historical regression of fascism, and the fragile but real hope of a socialist alternative. The achievement of Renoir, and of the astonishingly talented actors, technicians, and script-writers he worked with in the later 1930s, is to have made this sense of competing possibilities tangible on screen, thus confronting the French people with their responsibility to shape their future and to set the meaning of their past, later (in _La Regle du jeu_) making them face up to their abnegation of historical responsibility by showing a society destructively torn between decaying repetition and the fascist temptation.


An example that may put some flesh on these bones might be found in _La Grande Illusion_, when the prisoners are moved from their first easy-going prison camp to a grim, forbidding fortress. The latter is at once a mediaeval castle and a glimpse into an authoritarian (fascist) future. Its past-futureness confronts the characters (and the film's spectators) with the collapse of the established coordinates of their history. The escape that follows, with its affirmation of liberty and equality, is an intervention in the spatio-temporal fabric of the story itself, a restarting of the radical French revolutionary project stalled in the mire of competing nationalisms and social inequalities. Renoir's composition in deep space is simultaneously, and breathtakingly, composition in deep time. The latter -- perhaps because we prefer not to see the possibility to give a sense and shape to our history -- has (with the partial exception of Deleuze) been ignored. Anyone interested in how my book begins to develop (but not enough) this line of thinking can read some key extracts on the excellent Renoir website set up my Steve Masters: <>.


There is no space here to explain why the films might speak so powerfully to us now, so I will simply gesture towards the shape that a more satisfactory argument might follow. Firstly, _Le Crime de Monsieur Lange_: the film begins in a grey courtyard, a site of oppression, exploitation, and social separation, yet shows how resources for an alternative social project can be found by bringing together individual resilience, memories of happier days, collective solidarities, the creative imagination, and the knowledges and utopian elements contained within popular culture. While those political films that placed us in front of already rounded oppositional projects may now seem hopelessly inappropriate in the present conjuncture, _Le Crime_'s lesson in the creative assembly of fragments seems to speak to us with an unstilled urgency. _La Grande Illusion_ can of course be appropriated for humanist anti-fascism or for facile post-modern celebration of difference, but that is to empty it of its real radicalism. Its own anti-fascism is tied inseparably to internationalist egalitarianism and it is this radical coming together that should still speak to us now. Current anti-fascism can too easily turn into an alibi of the very status quo that nourishes the fascism it opposes. _La Regle du jeu_ for a long time seemed to me to be too perfectly expressive of the situation of France and Europe on the brink of war to be connected usefully to the present. Now, I feel that it speaks to us at least as compellingly as the other two films. The 1930s was, as I have noted, a time when the capitalist status quo competed with fascist regression and socialist hopes (real or illusory). _La Regle du jeu_ shows a world where the third possibility has been erased (the chateau location suggests that, at a deep level, the French revolution has been lost). Is this not substantially the world we find ourselves in now, one suspended, following the defeat of the twentieth-century left, somewhere between the chaotic, tragic-comic repetition of capitalism's unequal but apparently tolerant same, and the different authoritarian regressions that wait in the wings?


Now to the review. First, thanks to Michael Abecassis for the generally nice things he says and the broad picture of the book that he gives. Second, what I might want to disagree with. If I have a problem with the review, it is that it doesn't draw a sharp enough line between an account of my book and the writer's own perfectly legitimate thoughts on Renoir, so I sometimes end up appearing to say things that I didn't say and might in fact disagree with strongly. In order of appearance, these are:


1. I seem to have set out to identify the underlying continuities of Renoir's work. I didn't. My Renoir is one of sharp discontinuities arising both from technological shifts (the coming of sound), industrial contexts (the shift from France to Hollywood and back), and broader socio-historical dynamics (the rise of fascism, the coming of war, the postwar triumph of consumerism). I found nothing at the ideological or stylistic level which would tie the whole output together. But I did identify periods with strong internal coherence.


2. I don't only read Renoir's writings as personal documents, although clearly that aspect is there. I was more interested as seeing them as productions of self (of a directorial public persona), firstly in the context of the Popular Front, and later, under the strong influence of _Cahiers du cinema_, in an auteurist mould. I was particularly interested in underlining (its not a radically new insight) how much later critics used -- still use! -- Renoir's postwar writings to rewrite his committed films and to produce continuities in his work.


3. On individual films: I don't think I said that _Boudu sauve des eaux_ has a near documentary approach. What is striking about the film is the mix of studio-shot interiors and Parisian exteriors. The comments on _Madame Bovary_ are interesting but are not mine -- I was more interested in the film's combination of in-depth composition and the repeated presence of strong framings within the frame: a cinema that had begun to explore social dynamics through deep space but which set those dynamics within a rigid social structure. The astonishing excitement of the Popular Front films is when that frame begins to shift, when characters walk out of it and into history (but that is another story!).


4. I did try, as Abecassis notes, to complement existing left-wing accounts of Renoir (notably Chris Faulkner's very fine book) by adding a consideration of nation (and gender) to my analysis of the politics of the films. I hope I have pointed to some new distinctions between the films, suggesting for example, how, from the point of view of gender, _Le Crime de Monsieur Lange_ is an astonishingly radical film, in sharp contrast to some of the other works. But I don't think I identified 'an evolution of the backdrop message from radicalism to nationalism'. The films are courageous political interventions -- the political is anything but a backdrop. But also, as I tried to argue, there is no smooth curve in their political evolution.


5. I didn't say that the _La Marseillaise_ lacks unity and dramatic thrust. The film -- like much of Renoir's mature work -- has a stronger underlying unity than meets the eye. It is working to ground a progressive revolutionary nationalism in popular experience while separating it out from regressive variants.


6. Abecassis bundles different realisms together. I don't. It is, I think, vital to separate out the committed social realism of Renoir which shows a society in process and that can be changed, from French poetic realism with its aestheticisation of the social and its underlying fatalism. Renoir made one classic poetic realist film, the astonishing _La Bete humaine_, but that marked his loss of hope in the Popular Front. It is very different from the rest of his output from this era.


7. The existentialist reading of _La Regle du jeu_ is interesting, not least because it picks up on an account of the film that was around in France in the postwar period. This is not the way I see the film (as what I write above clearly shows).


8. I wouldn't endorse the Bazin/Scherer (Rohmer) account of the purification of Renoir's style in Hollywood. I am more interested in the shifts within the Hollywood films, the survival of a Frontist outlook in those that looked back to France, and a positive embrace of some regressive American mythology in some of the others. I try to ground this analysis (which I think opens up new ways to look at these films) in a consideration of key conjunctural features: Renoir's exile status, the wartime context, Hollywood's openness at this time to a more leftist position.


9. I don't describe _Le Carrosse d'or_ as realist! I am much more interested in the rich interplay of light surface and dark undertone in all these anti-realist, postwar costume dramas.


10. I agree with Abecassis that I could have talked more about the technical aspects. But this has already been done very well by a range of people -- Sesonske and so on. What interests me much more (as can be seen above) is a connection, at a deep level, of the formal and the semantic in a way that refuses the reductivism of formalism and tame incorporation within standard film histories.


Thanks to Michael Abecassis for his review and to _Film-Philosophy_ for this space.


Nottingham Trent University, England





Faulkner, C., _The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir_ (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986).


Sesonske, A., _Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924-1939_ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980).



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004



Martin O'Shaughnessy, 'Rethinking Renoir: A Reply to Michael Abecassis', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 9, March 2004 <>.


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