Unfinished before Bazin died, this is his incomplete last word on his favorite director. Truffaut offers notes throughout and gives an introduction, and Renoir himself offers a humble note of gratitude for his old friend at the outset. The writings contained in the book are something of a pastiche, some complete and some not — some merely some scribblings transcribed by Truffaut, because Bazin didn’t get around to writing something more linear and coherent. Still, thoughtful observations about that not only give us more of a picture of Bazin’s unique and important approach to the cinema, but also to the world(s) presented in Renoir’s films. Bazin throughout launches attacks on all things Expressionist. “Expressionism” he would describe as any approach to film that supplants reality by means of style and form. The notions of the “screen” and the “frame” are fundamentally Expressionist, not only in terms of the famous German film movement but in terms of their prioritizing of the styles presented and their enigmatic qualities rather than how they offer an image or a surface that corresponds to the real. Bazin rejects the frame, because the frame pretends to contain all that is relevant. Cinema, however, has as much to do with what is hidden, outside the frame, as it does with what is within it. The screen, as its name indicates, obscures what is there instead of bringing it into clear light. The best kind of cinema, Renoir’s cinema, is the kind that brings the real all the way to the surface, presenting an image that the filmmaker’s style helps support and which, though not in Bazin’s own words, exceeds itself by reference to the real. Interestingly, this model, couched in the context of the films of Jean Renoir, does not fall back upon an auteur theory. On the contrary, Bazin insists that films made in this manner submit themselves to the real. Things happen in this kind of cinema that could not be strictly “intentional,” and the great filmmakers know this.
Bazin elevates The Rules of the Game to the greatest film in Renoir’s corpus, but he goes on to bring The River to an equivalent status, calling it the “The Rules of the Game of Renoir’s second phase.” Bazin agrees with Renoir, who himself called The River the continuation of his 1939 film. The River was the film that enabled Renoir to return to France to make movies, something he refused to do until he could succeed in the Hollywood market. Bazin explores Renoir’s deep focus, unconventional casting choices, works of adaptation that surpass their source material, spiritual modes, and affinity for the Middle Ages as important pieces of his filmography.