Ranking the films of Jean Renoir

Until the last decade many of the films that made Jean Renoir’s reputation in France moldered in reel-to-reel versions at university libraries. Now it’s clear how astonishingly those 1930s films meshed complementary tones, bawdiness, and a leftism he found indivisible from curiosity: the loving depiction of the improvised co-op in The Crime of Monsieur Lange, the proletarian romance in La Chienne, the beauty and terror of a young girl seduced in A Day in the Country. If he had never written and directed Grand Illusion and, god, The Rules of The Game, Renoir would already have proven himself a worthwhile member of the pantheon.

Flummoxed by the rigid sets and literal methods of Hollywood film production, Renoir made a couple of worthwhile American pictures during his World War II-era American sojourn. The third act of his career, during which his reputation rose to heights from which it has never plummeted, saw a fascinating but often ungainly and strained fusions of realism and artifice; one day I may love Elena and Her Men as something other than a delightful pastry, or can hear past the infelicities of language in The River.

I haven’t seen everything, La Marseillaise and This Land Is Mine in particular. But here’s how I’ve ranked the goods, and the order in which first timers should watch them. Finally, Pascal Mérigeau’s 2012 biography, translated in 2016, is fulsome in every sense — like the master he honors.


Elena and Her Men
French Cancan

Sound, Solid

The Lower Depths
Diary of a Chambermaid
This Land Is Mine
Madame Bovary
Swamp Water
The Golden Coach

Good to Great

The Rules of the Game
A Day in the Country
Grand Illusion
The Crime of Monsieur Lange
La Chienne
La Bête Humaine
Boudu Saved From Drowning
The Southerner
The River

The Jury’s Out

La Marseillaise
The Woman on the Beach
Picnic on the Grass
The Elusive Corporal

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