Jean Renoir, a great artist's son who achieved greatness himself as a motion picture director, died yesterday at the age of 84 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Best known for "La Grande Illusion" and "The Rules of the Game," two masterworks made in his native France in the late 1930s, Mr. Renoir had been in declining health for the past few years.
An operation on a leg injured 60 years earlier by a German sniper's bullet prevented Mr. Renoir from attending Academy Award ceremonies in 1975 at which he was scheduled to receive an honorary Oscar. Ingrid Bergman accepted on his behalf. Mr. Renoir had been confined to a wheelchair since the operation.
He directed several American films while in exile from Occupied France during World War II, and returned to live in Los Angeles in the mid-'60s, occasionally teaching courses at the Univesity of California film school there.
Mr. Renoir was born in Paris on Sept. 15, 1894. He was the second of three sons born to the master Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir and his wife Aline Charigot.
The eldest son, Pierre, nine years older than Mr. Renoir, achieved fame as an actor in French plays and films. Pierre's son Claude has become one of the most respected cinematographers in international filmmaking. He served as the director of photography on a number of his uncle's films in the 1950s.
Jean Renoir's familiar, invigorating, cherubic visage as a child was immortalized by his father. In his memoirs, "My Life and My Films," published in 1974, Mr. Renoir recalled that his father took particular delight in his childish profusion of hair:
"My father loved to paint my hair, and his fondness for the golden ringlets which came down to my shoulders filled me with despair. At the age of six, and in spite of my trousers, many people mistook me for a girl... I impatiently awaited the day when I was to enter the College de Sainte-Croix, where the regulations required a hair style more suited to middleclass ideals."
Mr. Renoir, also the author of a biography entitled "Renoir, My Father," published in English translation in 1962, reflected at length on his father's influence. In his memoirs he described the process as indirect but profound:
"My father never talked to me about art. He could not bear the word. If his children chose to go in for painting, acting or music, they were free to do so, but they must never be pushed. The urge to paint a picture must be so powerful that it could not be resisted... Although he did not seek to influence his children, my father did most decidedly influence us by the magic of the pictures covering the walls of our home...When I started to make films I went out of my way to repudiate my fatherhs principles; but, strangely, it is precisely in the productions where I thought I had avoided Renoir's esthetics that his influence is most apparent."
Mr. Renoir felt that his father's art derived from a philosophic inclination to see "that the world is a whole, comprised of parts which fit together, and that its equilibrium is dependent on every piece."
This outlook is reflected in his own development of an improvisatory working method and fluid, deep-focus style of composition that sought to impose an ongoing illusion of reality and intimate, although subtle, correspondence between performers and settings.
"Everything, everything, absolutely everything, is relative," Mr. Renoir once remarked. "We are surrounded by relative truths, and indeed there are only relative truths; everything depends on the circumstances, on the moment... It is always a question of catching life, a certain aspect of life through two moments, differing no doubt, but related to all the same, without my wanting to establish a hierarchy within this relationship.
"... I still belong to the old school of people who believe in the surprise of life... I believe that cinema, and moreover every art, is made of happy chances, in large measure; then obviously there are people who have luck and who find themselves channeling those happy chances more often than others do... The auteur -- is he not the fisherman with his line? It is not he who creates the fish, but he knows how to catch it."
As a child Mr. Renoir was more stimulated by theatrical melodramas than the primitive, flickering movie images to which he was occasionally exposed. Following his schooling, Mr. Renoir worked briefly as a journalist, then secured a commission as a cavalry officer at the outbreak of World War I. Wounded in combat in 1915, he began attending movies frequently during a lengthy period of recuperation.
Encouraged by a fellow officer who had raved about the films of Charlie Chaplin, Mr. Renoir began to conceive a passion for filmmaking after seeing Chaplin. "Slowly the idea grew in me," he said, "that I had to be part of this revolution... When I started to make films my ambition was just to be successful, I was attracted by the glamor of the profession. Slowly, I discovered that to make films was something much more important, and perhaps a way to discover reality."
Following his father's death in 1919, Mr. Renoir married Catherine Hessling, one of his father's former models. In accordance with his father's wishes they established a pottery studio. However, they were so enamored of movies, and Hessling's beauty and animation seemed so exploitably photogenic that they collaborated on two short films, "Catherine" or "Une Vie Sans Joie" and "La Fille de 1'Eau," in 1924.
The latter attracted enough favorable attention to justify the production of an elaborate adaptation of Zola's "Nana" in 1926. It was a resounding box-office failure, in considerable measure because audiences were baffled by Hessling's strenuously irrepressible antics, an extreme approach that Mr. Renoir blamed himself for imposing on her.
Over the next few years, Mr. Renoir recouped by accepting routine commercial assignments that proved successful with the public, notably a lively service comedy called "Tire-au-Flanc."
Mr. Renoir began to evolve his distinctive naturalistic and humanistic style of social observation and character delineation with his first-sound feature, "La Chienne," made in 1931. Although it proved an artistic turning point in his career, the film also helped destroy his first marriage, since his wife had been rejected for the female lead.
As Mr. Renoir recalled the circumstances, "I offered to sacrifice myself by giving up 'La Chienne,' and she refused the offer, hoping that I would insist. But I did not insist, and this was the end of an adventure which should have been pursued in happiness. The cinema was for both of us a jealous god."
An ironic, tragicomic account of a declasse romantic triangle that leads to murder, "La Chienne" was distinguished by a deceptively simple, transparent style. The luminous, uncluttered compositions and natural, undubbed sound created an extraordinary sense of immediacy. One seemed to apprehend the characters with a remarkably revealing objectivity: They simply were what they were, an authentic distillation of complicated human natures.
Mr. Renoir refined this quality of illusion in subsequent social comedies, dramas and tragicomedies like "Boudu Saved from Drowning," "The Crime of Monsieur Lange," "The Lower Depths" and "La Bete Humaine." However, it's generally agreed that he reached the pinnacle of his achievement with "La Grande Illusion" in 1937, and "The Rules of the Game" in 1939.
Set in a German prisoner of war camp for captured French aviators in World War I, "La Grande Illusion" drew deeply on Mr. Renoir's wartime experiences and reflected an ardent pacifistic desire to contradict the rampaging nationalism and war fever of the times. Mr. Renoir's film stressed the similarities in class and tradition that united the German commandant, played by Erich von Stroheim, and a French officer, played by Pierre Fresnay.
Despite being banned in Germany and Italy, "La Grande Illusion" won an award at the Venice Film Festival and went on to become an international success. It became the first foreign-language film to be nominated for an Academy Award as best movie of the year.
"The Rules of the Game," an ironic social comedy set among idle demoralized members of the French ruling class, met with immediate popular disfavor when it opened in Paris in July 1939. Cut severely and then suppressed, the film did not begin to be appreciated until it was restored and reissued in the late 1950s.
"Rules of the Game" is now generally regarded as one of the most influential of modern films. The film critic and historian David Thomson has called it "the most dynamic juxtaposition of moods and feelings that cinema has yet achieved."
Francois Truffaut, whose work reflects Mr. Renoir's influence perhaps more strongly than any of the other New Wave directors, believes that "Rules of the Game" ranks with "Citizen Kane" as an inspiration and spur to aspiring filmmakers.
The essence of Mr. Renoir's philosophy may have been expressed by the character he played in "Rules of the Game," an amiable, muddled hangeron named Octave:
"It would help me not to see anything more, not to search anymore, for what's good, and what's bad. Because, you see, on this earth, there is one thing which is terrible, and that is that everyone has their own good reasons."
During his wartime exile in the United States, Mr. Renoir worked with considerable integrity and some success on pictures like "Swamp Water," "The Southerner" and "The Diary of a Chambermaid," but he always felt a bit of a stranger within the American movie industry.
He returned to Europe in 1947. He did not direct a film until "The River," an adaptation of a Rumer Godden novel shot in India in 1950.
His most notable European productions of the 1950s were "The Golden Coach," which provided Anna Magnani with an acting tour de force, and "Elena et les Hommes," a comedy that helped revive Ingrid Bergman's career after the Rossellini scandal. Mr. Renoir's last feature, "Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir," was made for French television in 1968.
Truffaut has described Mr. Renoir astutely as "the quintessential moviemaker of the personal. The conventional division of films into dramas and comedies becomes meaningless when we consider Jean Renoir's films, which are dramatic comedies. Some filmmakers think that they should put themselves 'in the place' of the producer, or the public... Jean Renoir always gives us the impression that he has put himself in the place of his characters... Renoir does not film ideas, but men and women who have ideas, and he does not invite us to adopt these ideas or to sort them out no matter how quaint or illusory they may be, but simply to respect them."
In an interview 20 years ago, Mr. Renoir was asked his favorite among his own films, and said he had none. "The real source of happiness," he remarked, "is the fact of creating. Once a thing is done, well, it's done... The real intoxication, if I may call it that, is in the act of creation: That's what matters, whether one is creating an apple pie, a film, a child or a painting."
Mr. Renoir's body will be flown to France where a funeral with state honors will take place next week.
He is survived by his second wife, Dido Freire, and a son, Alain, by his first marrage.