The American Society of Cinematographers

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Jean Renoir
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Jean Renoir Collectors Edition (1925)
1.33:1, 1.66:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Monaural
Lionsgate, $29.98

The potential for DVD technology to facilitate a home cinematheque has rarely been as economically realized as it is on Jean Renoir Collector’s Edition, an indispensable assortment of seven films with a retail price that averages out to less than $5 per movie. The collection is nothing less than a crash course in the work of one of cinema’s greatest artists, and a real eye-opener for viewers whose knowledge of Renoir comprises Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion. The films cover a 37-year time span and provide a broad sampling of Renoir’s preoccupations and styles, from the experimental exuberance of his early silents to the subtlety of his more mature work. Not every release in the set is a masterpiece, but all seven are entertaining expressions of the director’s humanist viewpoint.

Renoir’s directorial debut, Whirlpool of Fate (1925), is a melodrama that reveals his affection for D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. The story of a young woman on the run from a cruel uncle was photographed by Jean Bachelet and Alphonse Gibory, who created a nightmarish milieu by shooting the villains against black backgrounds. The result is a simple but effective visual corollary for the heroine’s disorientation; threatening figures seem to emerge out of nowhere, making it easy for the audience to share the protagonist’s sense of terror.

With their next film, Nana (1926), Renoir and Bachelet (this time working with C.E. Corwin) delivered a classic. An adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel about an opportunistic actress who destroys herself and those who love her, the film is morally complex and visually lavish, with sets and costumes that move the story forward instead of merely decorating it. The filmmakers repeat compositions and camera moves with slight alterations to make dramatic points; the movie also features glimpses of the deep-focus style that would become Renoir’s trademark.

The next two films, both shorts, find Renoir and Bachelet in a playful frame of mind. Charleston Parade (1927) is a celebration of jazz and a sophisticated satire of racial stereotyping, and The Little Match Girl (1928) is an enchanting adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s story. These magical shorts do little to prepare the viewer for the sheer scale of the next film, the historical epic La Marseillaise (1938). In its use of intimate moments to illustrate a sweeping social and political movement, this tale of the French Revolution is moving and intellectually rigorous. It’s also, paradoxically, one of Renoir’s least visually expansive films; the director and five credited cinematographers (Jean Bourgoin, Alain Douarinou, Jean-Marie Maillols, Jean-Paul Alphen and Jean Louis) include more close-ups and conventional shot progressions here than are found elsewhere in Renoir’s work.

The other two features in the collection, both photographed by George Leclerc, mirror other Renoir films in interesting ways. The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959) is a frightening riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which the joys of liberation celebrated in Renoir’s Picnic on the Grass are replaced by brutality and horror. The Elusive Corporal (1962) recalls The Grand Illusion in its tale of French prisoners of war trying to escape their German captors.

The transfers of all seven films are solid, though the early releases suffer from flaws in the source material. The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment and The Elusive Corporal are pristine, allowing viewers to appreciate the clarity and nuance of Leclerc’s cinematography in all its monochromatic splendor. The mono soundtracks are crisp and clear with one peculiar exception: Charleston Parade lacks musical accompaniment, a disappointing omission given that it’s the most choreographed of all Renoir’s silent pieces.

The collection includes a wonderful 30-minute documentary, “Jean Renoir: An Auteur to Remember,” in which Martin Scorsese provides historical and aesthetic contexts for each film in the set. His comments are concise and insightful, and they are supplemented by clips from the movies and interviews with Renoir’s son, Alain, and various film scholars.

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