Tales of a Grandfather

My Life and My Films by Jean Renoir Atheneum, 282 pages, $10

JEAN RENOIR'S Little Theater is three short movies and an even shorter interlude, held together by two simple ideas: that the world is like a little theater, with conventions as arbitrary but as crucial as the conventions of comedy, and that people who love each other come out right in the end. The movies' plots and characters are as simple as these ideas, and so is Renoir's technique--perhaps partly because he made the Little Theater for the smaller screen of television, his camera generally stays focused for several minutes at a time on a few people, against uncomplicated, picturesque backgrounds, like scenery from a theater.

The little stage Renoir points to at the beginning of each section fits the movie as a whole. If you almost always know what's going to happen next, it's because things follow old, classical patterns, like the Mack Sennett movies that Renoir says in My Life and My Films were "the direct expression of the dreams of the film-maker." And if you sometimes feel dissatisfied, if it seems that Renoir could film more interesting people than a woman in love with her electric floor waxer, or that not even the most charming Christmas Eve would make you enjoy freezing to death in the snow even with someone you loved, that may be because some of the Little Theater's ideas are too simple. They're enough for a heartwarming night at the movies, certainly, but it's less clear how they stand up against what Renoir says about his great The Rules of the Game: "This is something that people do not like; the truth makes them feel uncomfortable."

The only section of The Little Theater that I can imagine making people feel uncomfortable is the last one, about an old man who discovers his young wife with a lover, decides that the conventions of his village don't matter, and goes back to the village cafe with them both for a drink and a game of bowls. It's the most detailed and realistic of the three sections--the one that seems most consistent with the credo in My Life and My Films, that "every human creature, artist or otherwise, is largely the product of his environment."--and perhaps because it takes its reality seriously, it is complex enough to end with an ambiguity that verges on bitterness. When the tolerant, savage laughter of the villagers who were all set to ostracize the cuckold a moment before melts into their bows to the audience, it's as though Renoir is passing behond the sentiment of the rest of his movie to a cold-eyed account of it, a little like one of Wallace Stevens's poems, about a diabetic listening to the radio, that ends with "Dying lady, rejoice, rejoice." Since we've been asked to rejoice along with a couple of dying ladies earlier in the movie, and to forget that they're dying into the bargain, it's a welcome change--a good way for Renoir to end his last movie.

I think maybe the tone of My Life and My Films--tolerant, grandfatherly, but not overly analytic--helps account for some of the problems with the first couple of sections of The Little Theater. Renoir recalls the days when he was making a propaganda movie for the French Popular Front, say, in the same sketchy, enjoyable, anecdotal way he recalls everything else--besides its nuggets of information on how Auguste Renoir got his son to sit for portraits or what Erich von Stroheim argued about during the filming of The Grand Illusion, My Life and My Films is easy and quick-reading. But Renoir dismisses these days when workers' power seemed "a possible antidote to our destructive egotism" as irrelevant to a present in which workers have become bourgeois--he doesn't say just how--while "material prosperity has been accompanied by a diminished purity of spirit."

Weren't the workers who poured into France's streets in 1968 spirited? In any case, that concern with an undefined purity of spirit permeates The Little Theater, and sometimes I think it threatens to stifle it. In the first of the three movies, it's Christmas Eve. The snow comes down gently, as it should, the Seine winds placidly in the story-book background. Some diners-out offer an old bum money to watch them eat, so as to add savor to their meal with a reminder that progress--which they like as little as Renoir does--hasn't leveled all distinctions yet. The bum pockets the leftovers from their meal, shows up some patronizing rich folks who think they know all about poor people, waltzes through an imaginary chateau with his old flame, and lies down beside her to die in the snow. It's wonderful, except maybe because Renoir seems to expect you to follow his characters in just denying that they're poor--a little like some new, more sentimental Marie Antoinette, whispering a "Let them eat love," to the accompaniment of violins. It may be a triumph of the human spirit for the characters, but it's also an easy reassurance: Since people who are miserable are really happy, deep down inside, there's no reason why they shouldn't go on being miserable. The inhumane diner's strictures on progress end up sounding suspiciously like Renoir's own.


The second third of the Little Theater has more immediately obvious problems, I think. It's a sort of comic opera--some of it, particularly relatively peripheral touches like a running dialogue between the heroine's second husband and the portrait of her first, is really very funny--about a woman who kills herself when her husband throws her electric waxer out the window. The neighbors sing would-be operatic choruses, rather in the manner of the angels in Mefistofele, and the whole thing is evidently intended to be wild and laughable. But the ridicule of people's high regard for machines doesn't seem too startling or incisive--it's a bit like that statement about the diminished purity of spirit, maybe, with its yearning for bygone times and its inability to say why convincingly. It leads into a brief look at a sad and very serious song about what happens when love disappears. But Renoir hasn't shown us where love comes from yet--that only happens, some, in the third section. For all the grace and style of The Little Theater, it might be better off if Renoir had insisted more on what he says in My Life and My Films about setting preceding character, or on what his bum tells a headwaiter astonished by his knowledge of fine champagne: "I'm just an idiot--but life teaches you things."