Jean Renoir was born in 1894, second son of the impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He grew up in Montmartre, Paris, France, and quickly discovered and enjoyed the recent art called cinema. However, having passed his Baccalaureate, he decided to go for a career in the cavalry. WWI started too early however, and Jean Renoir joined the war in the infantry. He was wounded three times during those four years - each time going back to fight again ; he also joined the air force before the end of the war. At the end of it he finally decided a career in the army was not for him ; war wasn't what he wanted.
It was now time finding what to do of his life... Not an easy thing when one's father is one of the most famous painters of his time. By chance he got in the movie industry, and started writing and directing silent films in 1924. However, his first attempt at a big budget movie, an adaptation of Emile Zola's Nana, was a box office failure, and he had to sell his inheritance, which consisted of a fair number of his father's paintings, in order to cover the loss. So Jean Renoir had to turn a few commercial movies, before and after the advent of the talkies, so that producers would agree to let him make more ambitious movies.
The first such movie was La Chienne, about a man forced to enter a life of crime. Renoir then went on to shoot other masterpieces, from an adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary to the Provence drama Toni, where he used non-professional actors. By then he was the most famous French director of his time, writing in newspapers, with stars willing to perform in his films... It was the time of the Front Populaire, of the Spanish Civil War, and he joined the communist party, which at the time carried the hopes of the working class.
He made a few movies inspired by those leftist ideas : The Crime of Mr. Lange, The People of France, The Marseillaise, which was funded by a popular subscription, another adaptation of Zola, La Bête Humaine, and most importantly The Grand Illusion, often called the greatest anti-war film ever, about three French soldiers held as POW in Germany during WWI. However the film also dealt with great sensivity about such issues as loyalty, class society and even humanity. The film had a huge success, not only in France but across the world ; it was banned in Hitler's Germany.
He then went on to make another great film, The Rules of the Game, which often lands nowadays in Top ten movies list. The movie was about, well, the rules one was to follow in French society to be accepted. At the time of its release, however, it was a disaster ; the film was hissed on its premiere ; both the critics and the public disliked it.
It was shown in various cuts, none of which worked, and only in 1957 it was restored to its original version.
Then the second World War began. Renoir was enlisted to shoot propaganda movies. When finally the Nazis overran France, he decided to flee, and thanks to his friend Robert Flaherty, was in the US by the end of the year. He joined Hollywood, sharing a room with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Sunset Boulevard. However, of the many movies he made during and after the war, none reached the quality of the movies he had made in the thirties. He made them in Hollywood, in India, and again in post-war France ; the biggest success of those times was French CanCan, a film that paid hommage to the legendary Moulin Rouge ; but the Nouvelle Vague, which admired him, also made him obsolete. He died in 1979, and although he had become an American citizen during the war, France held National Funerals for him.
At the height of his talents, he was one of the best directors that ever put their eye behind a camera. He was a master of the style called poetic realism ; the sheer humanism of his films, their sensivity, the subtle picture they made of humanity, was unprecedented, and has not been equaled since.