Jean Renoir was born in Paris on 15th September 1894, the second son of painter Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). His elder brother Pierre (1885-1952) enjoyed a brilliant career as a theatre and film actor. The youngest, Claude (1901-1969), worked in production.
In 1907, the Renoir family moved to the Midi, to Cagnes-sur-Mer. Jean Renoir stopped his studies when war broke out.
When on leave, he discovered the American cinema, including Charlie Chaplin’s first films, and the work of Ivan Mosjoukine and Erich von Stroheim that inspired him to become a film director.
With a handful of friends, including future producer Pierre Braunberger, he made his first films for his young wife Catherine Hessling (Whirlpool of Fate in 1924, Nana in 1926, Charleston Parade in 1927, The Little Match Girl in 1928).
After the commercial failure of some of his mega productions (The Tournament in 1928 and Le Bled in 1929) and his first speaking film Baby’s Laxative (1931), that was a big success, Renoir made La Chienne (1931) with Michel Simon. During the next 18 months, he made five films (including Boudu Saved from Drowning and Madame Bovary) that, despite their commercial failure, made it possible for him to put together a solid and faithful team, including young Jacques Becker and film editor Marguerite Houllé, now also his companion. A Communist militant, her influence brought Renoir close to the Communist Party and the October Group, that became an inspiration for his new productions (The Crime of Monsieur Lange in 1935 and The Lower Depths in 1936). Meanwhile, and thanks to his friendship with Marcel Pagnol, he made Toni (1934), famous for its outdoor decors.
In February 1936, Maurice Thorez asked him to make La Vie est à nous for the Communist Party. He took part in meetings, wrote for the daily newspaper L’Humanité and made La Marseillaise (1937). This was undoubtedly the most intense period of his life. While France began to experience life under the Front Populaire, and the rise of fascism was felt throughout Europe, Renoir took turns as journalist, militant and protest film maker. He criticised the decadence of French cinema production and called for state intervention. In vain.
Renoir then filmed La Grande Illusion (1937) followed by La Bête humaine (1938). But, with his political illusions behind him, he now wanted to make a personal film. It was to be The Rules of the Game (1939), unpopular with his leftist followers. The relationship between masters and servants were the opposite to what was expected related to the alienation of servants and big money. At the end of July 1939, Renoir, complaining of being misunderstood in France, went to Italy, under Mussolini, to prepare La Tosca, finally never made. He then left for the United States where he signed a year-long contract with Twentieth Century Fox (Swamp Water in 1940, The Southerner in 1945). During this period, he also made The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946).
After a few years working in the American studios and a journey to India (The River in 1951), he returned to Europe to make more stylised films in colour (The Golden Coach in 1952, French Cancan in 1954). Now adored by the young film critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma, Renoir’s work was the opposite of that of “Qualité française!” (Carné, Duvivier, Clouzot) that they rejected.
Renoir experimented with the new techniques used in television (Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Experiment in Evil). While praised by the critics, the filmmaker did not get the financial backing he needed for his many projects. He then turned to writing novels (Les Cahiers du Capitaine Georges, Le Cœur à l'aise, Le Crime de l'Anglais, Geneviève) and an autobiography (Ma vie et mes films).
After the flop of his last film in 1969, The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir, Renoir returned to the United States where he died on 12th February 1979.