My Life and My Films

Source: Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films (London: Collins, 1974) [translated by Norman Denny], pp. 16-18

Text: My first experience of the cinema was in 1897. I was a little over two. My mother had decided to buy a whitewood wardrobe for Gabrielle’s bedroom. Gabrielle, who was to become Renoir’s model, was born at Essoyes, a village in Burgundy. She was my mother’s cousin, and when I was born she came to live with us as a ‘help’. The help consisted chiefly of looking after me and taking me for walks. She was then sixteen. I could not get on without ‘Bibon’, the nickname I bestowed on Gabrielle, which emerged from my vain efforts to pronounce her name …

… Our destination on this outing was the Dufayel department store. I can only repeat was Gabrielle told me when, at the end of her life, she came to join us in Hollywood. But my memory goes far enough back for me to be able to recall that the world in those days was divided for me into two parts. My mother was the tiresome part, the person who ordered me to eat up my dinner, to go to the lavatory, to have a bath in the sort of zinc tub which served for our morning ablutions. And Bibon was for fun, walks in the park, games in the sand-heap, above all piggy-back rides, something my mother absolutely refused to do, whereas Gabrielle was never happier than when bowed down under the weight of my small body. I was a spoilt child. Our family life enclosed me in a protective wall softly padded on the inside. Beyond this wall impressive persons came and went. I would have liked to join them and be impressive myself, but unfortunately nature had made me a coward. Whenever I discerned a breach in the wall I uttered crises of alarm.

All went well at the beginning of our visit to Dufayel. The streets had a peaceful look – no sign anywhere of the villains who steal children who wander away from their mothers. At the entrance to the store a man wearing a braided cap asked us if we wanted to see the ‘cinema’. His cap was rather like the uniform cap of the Collège de Saint-Croix, where my brother Pierre, the future actor, had been sent as a boarder to make room in the home for my cumbersome self. A man wearing such a cap could only be on the side of the ‘good’, that is to say, those dedicated to safeguarding the small fragment of the world which was the only one I knew. It was therefore in a spirit of comparative confidence that I allowed Bibon to take me into the projection room.

The Grands Magasins Dufayel were in the forefront of progress. They had been the first to sell on credit. The building, with its walls of real stone and large glass windows shedding their light on imitation Henri II sideboards, gave to those privileged to enter that temple of mass-produced goods an impression of solidity capable of withstanding anything. The free cinema was another of their daring innovations. Gabrielle’s account of the incident was terse and lacking in detail. Scarcely had we taken our seats than the room was plunged in darkness. A terrifying machine shot out a fearsome beam of light piercing the obscurity, and a series of incomprehensible pictures appeared on the screen, accompanied by the sound of a piano at one end and at the other end a sort of hammering that came from the machine. I yelled in my usual fashion and had to be taken out. I never thought that the staccato rhythm of the Maltese cross was later to become for me the sweetest of music. At the time I did not grasp the importance of that basic part of both camera and projector without which the cinema would not exist.

So my first encounter with the idol was a complete failure. Gabrielle was sorry we had not stayed. The film was about a big river and she thought that in a corner of the screen she had glimpsed a crocodile.

Comments: Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was a French film director, whose films include La Règle du jeu, La Grande illusion and Une partie de campagne. His father was the artist Auguste Renoir. Les Grands Magasins Dufayel was in Paris.