(23/08/07) – Optimum’s recent release of a seven-disc Jean Renoir DVD boxset offers a wonderful opportunity to get familiar with the films of one of the cinema’s greatest ever directors. Nearly all of these films would be likely regulars alongside the classic films of Hitchcock, and Powell/Pressburger for Sunday matinee transmissions on terrestrial English television, were it not for the fact that their language is French. It is a shame because they are the work of a director who was not only innovative, but also a great storyteller who reflected aspects of human existence in an entertaining and engaging way.

It has to be said that this collection is not a ‘greatest hits’ package, and that a few of these films would not make the ‘top ten’ of most people’s favourite Renoir films. This fact does not diminish the quality of the boxset, though. Included are films otherwise seldom seen, a series of great performances from some of the best actors of the French Classic period, enlightening documentaries that brilliantly put the films into perspective, and the curios of two early short films.

The French attitude towards its own cinema is light-years ahead of Britain’s and this is nowhere more evident than in the production standards of DVDs. Optimum has done well to team up with Studio Canal to ensure that the special features on this boxset are more than mere promotional sound/vision-bites for the films. The end result is a package that enhances the films themselves and leaves the viewer with a much better understanding of Renoir’s work.

Chronologically, the features begin with what one Renoir’s best loved films, one that is considered to be one of the greatest war films ever made. La Grande Illusion (1937), set during the Great War, is not great because of its depiction of physical carnage or wonderful battle sequences. Instead, Renoir focuses on the relationships of French prisoners of war between each other, and their German captors. The film is all about the end of chivalry, the changing role of different classes within European society, and the effect of the war on notions of class and decency. It is a great ensemble piece with wonderful performances from Pierre Fresnay, Erich Von Stroheim and Jean Gabin.

Gabin appears again in Renoir’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel, La Bete Humaine, as the epileptic train-driving antihero. This film, made a year after La Grande Illusion, compliments Gabin’s roles in the two Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert’s works around the same time: Quai Des Brumes(1938) and Le Jour se Leve(1939). These films capture a sense of unease in the build up to World War Two and Gabin established himself as the ill at ease onscreen incarnation of national uncertainty.

La Marseillaise (1938) is an ambitious, socialist attempt to tell the story of the adoption of the marching tune, which became the French National Anthem. The film itself falls short of Renoir’s original aspirations but the story of the film, as told in the accompanying documentary, gives such great context that it is hard not to admire it for what Renoir wanted to achieve.

Perhaps the one film in the boxset to disappoint is Elena and Les Hommes (1956). Despite being based upon an important political incident in the days of the Third Republic, and despite having an interesting cast, the film somehow feels like a costume drama vehicle for Ingrid Bergman.

Conversely, Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (1959) is the surprise gem of the boxset. This adaptation of Stephenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is the French companion piece to two other films made around the same time – Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

Not only is this a sharp study of the mind of a killer, and the world of dual personalities, it also has a performance as brilliant as those of Anthony Perkins and Carl Boem in the aforementioned films. Jean Louis Barrault, best known for his role in Les Enfants du Paradis, is simply stunning as Cordelier/Opale.

By this stage, like Hitchcock, Renoir was experimenting with techniques picked up from television and incorporating them into film. This is evident at the beginning of Cordelier and also in Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (1959). This slightly offbeat comedy has, in some ways, not aged too well, but as the documentary illustrates, is one of Renoir’s most personal films, with a subtle thread of nostalgia for the pastoral past.

Le Caporal Epingle (1962) brings the boxset to a balanced conclusion. The story of French prisoners of war, and their attempts to escape, has obvious links to La Grande Illusion. Sadly, the film suffered in comparisons to the earlier masterpiece at the time of release and was to be one of Renoir’s last projects. The film has a human warmth which makes it interesting in comparison to Jean Pierre Melville’s colder war films of around the same time, most notably L’Armee des Ombres. Both films shared the actor Jean Pierre Cassel, who died earlier this year.

The two short films included, Air de Charleston (1927) and La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes (1928), add an illustration of the earlier experimentation and avant garde direction. Renoir continued to innovate throughout his career but the innovations were seldom intrusive to the seamless unfolding of the story being told. Few directors have had the ability to make as varied a range of films and managed to incorporate such a strong sense of humanity.

The other great films of Renoir are available in other DVD releases, and for those who haven’t seen them, this boxset will make you want to search further. This is the perfect introduction to the work of one of cinema’s greatest storytellers.

Optimum’s Renoir boxset is out now. It includes the films: Elena et Les Hommes (1956) Le Caporal Epingle(1962) Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (1959) Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (1959) La Bete Humaine (1938) La Marseillaise (1938) La Grande Illusion (1937) and the early short, silent films Sur un Air de Charleston (1927) and La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes (1928). Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.