Film critic André Bazin passed away in the process of writing a book about the films of his friend, Jean Renoir. François Truffaut completed the work, organizing Bazin’s writings as he thought best. I can’t tell you how moving I find this book! Not because it contains fiercely intelligent and observant film criticism that makes you see Renoir’s films in a clearer light, although it certainly does that. This book kills me because these men love each other so much, and their affection shines off the pages like a warm, infectious glow.
In his introduction, Truffaut warns, “No one should expect me to introduce this book with caution, detachment, or equanimity. André Bazin and Jean Renoir have meant too much to me for me to be able to speak of them dispassionately… André Bazin, whom his friends remember as an extraordinary man full of joyous goodwill and intelligence, found himself in complete sympathy with the work of Renoir…” Renoir, in his turn, wrote of Bazin’s writings, “Certain directors of films, whose work André Bazin analyzed so scrupulously, will only remain in man’s memory because their names will be read in his books. Their worth is not in question. To tell the truth, it matters little to me. I’m grateful to them for having inspired a clear poet, an artist who, by dint of objective humility, made his work the moving expression of his generous personality.”
And, of course, time and time again, the word that crops up to describe Jean Renoir’s films is “generous.” He’s kind to his characters, we feel that he loves them – even the characters that we don’t particularly like. In Bazin’s words, “Even when defending a particular moral or social truth, he always does justice to the men who oppose this truth and to their ideals as well. He gives every chance to ideas, and every chance to individuals.” I believe that such generosity, such affection for all of the characters is necessary for any great work of art. This needn’t imply a saccharine avoidance of life’s harsher moments, nor need it come at the expense of honesty. In fact, in pouring one’s soul into the work in a sort of communion with the characters, an artist creates a more resonant recognizable portrait of life. I think this is true of literature, painting, film, music – any medium that struggles to explore what it means to be human, in all of our messy interaction with each other and with the world around us. As Renoir says in the role of Octave in Rules of the Game, “…everyone has his reasons.”
I must admit I feel very envious of Renoir, Bazin and Truffaut! I envy their attachment to each other and to film. I envy a world in which writing about films talking about films and making films was so important, and carried out with such warm hearts. Is there a place for that in this world any more? Bazin believed that critics should only discuss films that they liked. It’s so easy to be critical and snide, we see it all around us. It’s so easy to create characters who are shockingly evil, with no soul and no redeeming qualities, we see it in all the most successful films. That’s what sells, and the market has become everything.
Renoir describes his love for Bazin in a wistful, prophetic, and bittersweet introduction to the book. “The more I travel through life, the more I am convinced that masks are proliferating…the modern world is founded on the ever increasing production of material goods. One must keep producing or die…One prefers that this process be peaceful, but events have a way of getting out of hand. This is an age of violence, and it is likely to become more so. Still we do everything we can to conduct our operation peacefully, to conquer by persuasion. And thus, the cancer of our society: advertising. Occasionally in such troubled times, men or women come forth to dedicate themselves to helping us reestablish a sense of reality. Bazin was such a man.” It seems harder than ever, today, to see past the masks and the advertising, the petty criticism and shallow cruelty. Luckily we have the films of Renoir and Truffaut, and the writing of Andre Bazin to remind us to be generous and kind.