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An Encounter with Norman Lloyd and Jean Renoir

The closing night film of the section of Cannes known as Un Certain Regard is Gilles Bourdos' portrait of an artist fighting against the ravages of time. 

Michel Bouquet plays Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir and Vincent Rottiers plays his son Jean, home from the first World War having been wounded in action. It is during these days that Jean encounters his father's latest model, Andrée, who will become the younger Renoir's muse and wife as he begins his career as a world famous film director and one of the icons of cinema.

As I watched Rottiers play a young Jean Renoir, I was reminded of the great French actor Jean Gabin, though they hardly looked alike in reality. Seeing the filmmaker at 21 reminded me of a talk I attended at Cannes a few days before, with Hollywood star Norman Lloyd. Billed as an encounter with the 94 year-old actor, Lloyd (as expected) told stories of many of the icons of the movies, including Renoir fils himself.

Lloyd was interviewed by veteran film critic Todd McCarthy with film expert and man about Cannes, Pierre Rissient. McCarthy started off the proceedings by reminding Lloyd that they first met at the Los Angeles home of Jean Renoir, where the auteur would show16mm copies of his films to some friends every week. And Lloyd and McCarthy went along for what must have been a glorious ride: Renoir films in his cozy home every Saturday!

The conversation with Lloyd went beyond Renoir, of course, but it kept coming back to him. Lloyd started his career on stage with all the progressive companies of the day: the WPA Theater, John Houseman and Orson Welles' Mercury Theater (which staged an iconic production of Julius Caesar) as well as Joseph Losey's Living Newspaper

There was much about Welles and his theater ideas; and Bertolt Brecht, one of a number of European refugees including, of course, Renoir, but also Otto Preminger, Thomas Mann and more who, Lloyd said, formed  a 'great intellectual community' in Hollywood. Of Brecht and his plays, Lloyd spoke at length about Galileo, calling it "one of the outstanding plays of the 20th century."

Talking about work ethics, Lloyd remarked on Renoir's admiration of Hollywood filmmakers' direction of Westerns, speaking of Budd Boetticher, particularly. Boetticher (and others) would shoot the film and be done. "They came to do a job," Lloyd said. Hearing this, I go back to the film Renoir. At one point, Jean (who is only 21years old) tells André that his father Auguste saw himself as a worker more than an artist. And so director Renoir views himself in the same light. 

Renoir saw this same work ethic in the films of Charlie Chaplin, with whom he became friends. Lloyd related that Renoir once said that if there had been no Chaplin, there would be no movie business. Can we say if Auguste Renoir had not been a painter, then Jean wouldn't have become a film director? 

Don't know about that; however, watching the film Renoir carefully, there are hints. As Jean helps his arthritic father mix colors, he suggests black. 

Auguste snaps back that a Renoir would always make things colorful. Sure, but naturally Jean's first film efforts in the 20s and 30s were black and white: think Boudu Saved from Drowning, for one.

It is interesting to point out that Renoir was one of just a few films actually screened in 35mm. So many films are now on DCP - digital cinema projection - that I couldn't help noticing the marks at the end of the reels and the changeovers themselves. In fact, it was a pleasure to watch it!

Back to the here and now and the conversation. And back again to those Saturday screenings chez Renoir. Lloyd recounted how many said, when Jean started to make films, he was afraid that people would say he was just putting his father's paintings on celluloid. And certainly Jean Renoir was his own man in that area.

However, as he looked back at all of his films, on 16mm (Lloyd said it took a while for all of them - Renoir, Lloyd, McCarthy - to see all 50 or so films; IMDB lists 41 films by Jean Renoir, including some shorts), Renoir told his friends that he now realized he had, in fact, spent his entire career imitating his father! 

That may just be a son's observation, and an audience may see it differently, but only at Cannes can a cinephile play their own game of film history by seeing a biopic, as it were, and getting the real dirt from a filmmaker's contemporary at the same time. This is the life!

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