1. The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) - Best described as a "comic tragedy," Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece focuses on three themes: the relationship between and among the frivolous upper-class and their servants; the complex emotions between men and women; and the boundaries and expectations of society (the "rules of the game"). I first saw it in a college film class in the 1970s and it left a lasting impression. Although some contemporary audiences may find parts of it dated, it’s easy to see why critics often rank Rules alongside Citizen Kane as one of the greatest films ever made.
2. A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne) - Renoir began shooting this film in 1936, but bad weather delayed the production to the point that the director abandoned it. Ten years later, his film editor and lover, Marguerite Houllé-Renoir, edited the remaining footage into a 40-minute film. I'm not sure of Jean Renoir's original intentions, but I can't imagine how a longer running time could have improved this lyrical ode to fleeting love. It's probably the closest he came to capturing his father Auguste's Impressionist paintings on celluloid. The simple plot follows a working-class family's outing to the country. While the father and son fish, the mother has a carefree fling and the daughter experiences deeper emotions that will linger through the years. My only regret is that it wasn't shot in color.
3. The Crime of Monsieur Lange - When a ruthless publisher fakes his death and disappears, the company's remaining employees form a cooperative to carry on the business. A meek clerk, Amédée Lange, encounters great success with his Western pulp novels about Arizona Jim. He and the publisher's former mistress also fall in love. Life is wonderful--until then the "dead man" unexpectedly reappears. A deceptively complex film, The Crime of Monsieur Lange was considered controversial at the time because of its politics (the cooperative representing Communistism) and the ending (no spoilers here). However, my fondess for the film owes more to its charm, Renoir's use of the courtyard setting (foreshadowing Rear Window?), and the cinematography (highlighted by a stunning, for the time, camera shot at the climax).
4. French Cancan - Renoir's celebration of show business is rightfully noted for the director's brilliant use of color. The vivid images seem to burst from the screen or, as Francois Truffaut wrote more concisely: "Each shot in French Cancan is a popular poster...with beautiful blacks, marooons, and beiges." As for the story, it follows a music hall impressario named Danglard (Jean Gabin) who creates Moulin Rouge. Danglard uses people to create his vision, particularly the young impressionable women that he molds into stars. He could have been an unsavory character, but veteran actor Gabin applies his extensive charm to the part. He convinces us that Danglard loves the theater above all else and that, in the end, his motives are justified for the sake of art.
|A colorful set from French Cancan (1955).|
Honorable Mentions: Grand Illusion (which ranks #1 or #2 on most Renior lists); Boudu Saved from Drowning (remade in the U.S. as Down and Out in Beverly Hills); and The River.