• Flashback: Jean Renoir and Michel Simon

    By Peter Cowie

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    La chienne epitomizes the brief if incandescent partnership between Jean Renoir, a director just reaching maturity at the close of the 1920s, and Michel Simon, a Swiss-born actor who kowtowed to no one. They were born less than a year apart, but they came from vastly different milieus (Renoir grew up around the artistic and intellectual friends of his father, Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir; Simon was the son of a Swiss sausage-maker), and although they both made their way into military service, their experiences in WWI could not have been more divergent. Renoir had been wounded at the outset of hostilities, and then returned to the Western Front as a lieutenant in the French Air Force (which inspired Jean Gabin’s character in Grand Illusion). Simon, however, had been conscripted into the Swiss Army, and then swiftly dismissed for suffering from tuberculosis—and because he was regarded as disobedient and recalcitrant.

    Each man came to the cinema via a different route. Renoir worshipped the genius of Chaplin, much admired Griffith, and when he met and fell in love with an accomplished actress working under the name “Dédée,” he resolved to embrace the movies as a career. Catherine Hessling, as Dédée was known socially, became Renoir’s wife and starred in his first few features—Backbiters (1924), Whirlpool of Fate (1925), and Nana (1926). Michel Simon, by contrast, had plunged into the legitimate theater, gaining an early role in a Swiss production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in 1920, and then in stage productions of works by Shaw, Wilde, Pirandello, and other playwrights of the time.

    Although Renoir had been in touch with Simon since 1928, when he made Tire au flanc (The Sad Sack) and gave the actor his first starring role, their collaboration burned most intensely during a twenty-month period from late 1930 to 1932, during which they made three pictures together, including La chienne. Their second film was On purge bébé (Renoir’s first sound film), released in 1931, followed that year by La chienne, and in 1932 by Boudu Saved from Drowning. Of course, Simon would appear in memorable work by other directors, such as Jean Vigo and Marcel Carné, but his performances for Renoir bore an undertow of danger and folly that set them apart.

    Had WWII not intervened, I think Simon would have made even more films with Renoir. As it is, he starred as the Baron Scarpia in Renoir’s adaptation of Tosca, which had been financed by the Italian producer Scalera Film, a quasi-state company endorsed by Mussolini. When the Nazi presence in Rome grew more threatening, Renoir decided to flee Italy, leaving his assistant Carl Koch to complete the film. Simon, with his Swiss passport, could stay on unimpeded, although he complained to Renoir that the Germans monopolized the brothels he liked to frequent virtually every night.

    Simon also introduced Renoir to various projects, most notably Boudu Saved from Drowning, in which he had performed in the original 1925 Paris stage production. As late as 1965, Renoir briefly considered casting Simon in a project entitled C’est la révolution—which mutated into the made-for-television film The Little Theater of Jean Renoir, and four years later in an uncompleted film that would have been entitled Julienne et son amour, revolving around a prostitute in pre-1914 Paris; Simon would have played Julienne’s best customer.

    Simon could be ingratiating, sinister, sadistic, vulgar, witty, and even violent (he once threatened Renoir with a gun after the accidental death of his beloved Janie Marèse, his costar in La chienne). Renoir wrote in his autobiography (My Life and My Films) that Simon “was exceptionally penetrating in his condemnation of the stupidity and bad taste of our time.” He noted Simon’s love of animals, and monkeys especially, his belief in health foods, and the fact that his friend and colleague “was reputed to be particularly interested in unorthodox sexual practices.”

    When I met Michel Simon, during the Locarno Film Festival of 1963, he was already sixty-eight years of age. In person, he had the presence of an ex-pugilist. His nose, protuberant like Depardieu’s, seemed to have absorbed a lot of punishment. His smile reminded you of a child obliged to eat a lemon. His hair had remained relatively luxuriant, adding to his height in a crowd. He listened courteously when I asked him, for some reason I have long forgotten, if he had ever appeared on-screen with Annabella, another star of the 1930s. He replied, with infinite patience, that in fact he never had! We were then interrupted by Valerio Zurlini, who declared that the Italian cinema had remained the same since 1945. Simon quipped that in France the opposite applied—everything had changed with the nouvelle vague!

    In the autumn of 1967, the London Film Festival screened La Marseillaise, which had slumbered almost unseen since the 1930s. Renoir bustled cheerfully onstage, telling us how the film had been misunderstood upon its first release. He had shot it on the basis of many months of detailed research. He had, he said, written very little dialogue, and had drawn the vast gist of the film from documents dating from the 1790s. Renoir’s ebullient personality literally beamed off the stage. The great head hunched forward, the voice husky from half a century’s worth of cigarettes, and the hands gesticulating like Stokowski at his peak. Some of us had gathered at the side door to catch his arrival and were rewarded with a quick, almost gentle handshake. By then, the maestro was in the evening of his career, with only The Little Theater ahead of him, and he and Simon would never again work together.

    Some memorable screen moments still lay ahead for Michel Simon, however—notably, that very year, he portrayed the crusty, politically incorrect grandpa in Claude Berri’s The Two of Us, which won him a Silver Bear at Berlin. In 1964, he’d played the aged engineer condemned for sabotage in Frankenheimer’s The Train, and in 1970 he portrayed a crusty, retired professor in The House (directed by Polanski’s screenwriter, Gérard Brach). Two years later, he was the lascivious “Master” in Borowczyk’s Blanche.

    Simon died in 1975, at the age of 80, just a few days after the release of The Red Ibis, his final film; Renoir would pass on four years after his friend, the erstwhile right-wing anarchist who had somehow bonded with the greatest of all French directors and a committed supporter of Léon Blum’s left-wing Popular Front. When he heard of Simon’s death, Renoir wrote to Claude Beylie that “the sun has turned darker . . .”

    This is one in a series of pieces devoted to film figures Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.

1 comment

  • By Gwendolyn Audrey Foster
    June 15, 2016
    03:06 PM

    Bring out LA MATERNELLE (1933) on DVD/BLU RAY. People must see LA MATERNELLE by Jean Benoit-Lévy and Marie Epstein. La Chienne has an extra of the restoration of On purge bébé, for goodness sakes! LA MATERNELLE is as important as Zéro de conduite. Just as beautiful, and significant.
    Reply