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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Renoir in black and white

by Philip Martin | February 22, 2022 at 3:15 a.m.

It's lazy to use superlatives, and silly to argue over what's the greatest or the best. But when Criterion Collection began distributing DVDs in the 1980s, the film it chose to release first was Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion."

It's a movie that will not be constrained by genre, a war film without battles that refuses to reduce the conflict to a struggle between good and evil. Though it was made by a pacifist, it's really not stridently pacifist, especially if you compare it to something like Lewis Milestone's "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930).

Maybe it's best described as deeply humanist in that all the soldiers in it are presented as ordinary people, costumed in uniforms. They have in common sadness and frustration, a capacity for hope and--as the title suggests--self-delusion.

They have no enemy, except the war itself.

I've seen this film a dozen times over the years, most recently last week during my Friday morning movie class. It's never quite the movie I remember it as, but it never feels irrelevant. It was made in 1936, in a Europe hurtling forward just two decades after the war to end all wars--a black-and-white film that rejects artificial systems of class, nationality, military rank, language, custom, religion and race we impose to make a game of life.

Renoir was born to privilege at the height of the Belle Epoque, the second son of the great Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He was raised in the Montmartre district of Paris, mostly by his nanny Gabrielle Renard, his mother Aline's cousin.

Gabrielle was 16 when she moved from the countryside into the Renoir household, a few weeks before and in anticipation of Jean's birth. Her role was clear: She was to parent the child, to allow the 53-year-old painter and his wife to live unencumbered by childish needs and wants.

She would become fully integrated into the family, becoming one of the painter's favorite models and perhaps his mistress. During the final years of Auguste's life, she helped fix his arthritic hands around his paint brush.

And she developed a special bond with her young charge; in his early years they were inseparable. She took Jean strolling through the winding streets of Montmartre to the Guignol puppet shows in the Tuileries and watched him splash in the waves after the family moved to a farm outside Cagnes-sur-Mer, near the Mediterranean coast.

He was a year or so old when she took him to his first movie.

Gabrielle had been fascinated by moving pictures since the beginning; she may have been among those who paid a franc to watch the Lumière brothers project their short films on a screen in the billiard room in the Grand Café at Hotel Scribe in Paris some three months after Jean was born.

She was a profound influence on young Jean, who would claim a happy childhood despite having a rather formal relationship with his parents.

His father in particular was remote, often seeming to view young Jean more as a potential model than anything else. He wouldn't let his children call him "papa," instead insisting they call him "patron" (boss).

He dressed young Jean in pink silk smocks and tied yellow ribbons in his flowing auburn hair. He painted portraits of the boy, who in the earliest of these presents to modern eyes as a young girl.

While it was common for the sons of the bourgeoisie to let their hair grow until they started school, Auguste so loved painting that hair that he held Jean out of school for a couple of years, and forbade him from having his hair cut until a new model, his young brother Claude, was born.

Auguste Renoir painted because it was a delight to him; his subjects were beauty and pleasure. He undertook no dark investigations into the human psyche. He would not have painted had it not thrilled him to do so. He did not question the station he attained in life of the fashions his class affected.

With his black beret and pointy beard, the elder Renoir feels very much the 19th-century cliché. His paintings portrayed the aristocratic class in a gauzy sentimental light; the best people, lit from within. He and his friend Monet are perhaps my favorite painters, but it might be fair to say he is not especially difficult to parse.

But country girl Gabrielle instilled something else in young Jean.

"She taught me to see the face behind the mask and the fraud behind the flourishes," Jean wrote at the beginning of his 1974 memoir "My Life and My Films." "She taught me to detest the cliché."

Renoir went off to fight World War I; he signed on to the French Army, assigned to a cavalry division and sent to the front in February 1915. In April, while on patrol near Silver Hollow on the slope of the Hohneck in the Vosges mountains of northeastern France, a German bullet shattered his left thigh bone. He was evacuated on the back of a mule and transported to a hospital where he wrote his family that he was experiencing a "little stiffness," and that the injury would probably add a little "snazzy officer" to his walk.

Renoir's mother immediately came to his bedside, and argued the doctors out of amputating Jean's gangrenous leg. She returned home and died less than a month later. Jean would return to Paris to convalesce, and for the first time in his life, spend quality time with Auguste. During this time he also returned to the movies, sometimes with his older brother Pierre. Together they discovered Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Pearl White.

Though his doctors agreed he was 25 percent disabled, Jean returned to service in 1916. He wanted to drive a tank, but settled for being an aerial photographer, then a pilot flying reconnaissance missions. He crashed two planes, survived a fighter attack, and for the second time was cited for bravery, having "accomplished all long-distance photographic missions he was assigned."

For a while after the war, Jean made pottery, but gave it up when he realized his pieces were selling because of his father's name, the inescapable fact of his heritage. He would always be the son of the painter who understood every shadow had a color, that black and white were man-made things.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at

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