Pooling two of Jean Renoir’s 1930s classics (anti-war drama La Grande Illusion; Zola adap La Bête Humaine) with a quintet of lesser-known works (making their UK DVD debuts), this treasure trove showcases the great Gallic director’s diversity. There’s 19th Century romance Elena Et Les Hommes (1956) – in which Ingrid Bergman has to choose between love and power – French Revolution chronicle La Marseillaise (1938) and his take on the Jekyll and Hyde myth, The Testament Of Dr Cordelier (1959).
Academic Ginette Vincendeau rightly notes in her ...Illusion intro that Renoir probed every point on the class spectrum. Just look at the telling social differences he teases out between French squaddies in Le Caporal Epingle (1962), a deceptively light-hearted POW flick. There are no cut-and-dried heroes and villains in his films: instead he gives us flesh-and-blood human beings with all their contradictions, passions and foibles.
Then there’s Renoir’s technical know-how: the long takes, the deep-focus lensing, the use of real locations. As Epingle actor Jean-Pierre Cassel puts it in one of the box’s three docs, it was as if “he had a camera in his head”. The surprise gem here is Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (1959), made when Renoir was 65. Inspired by the impressionist daubings of his painter father Auguste, it’s the tale of a rational scientist (Paul Meurisse) swept off his feet by a farmer’s daughter (Catherine Rouvel). Playful and poetic, it’s a terrific tribute to the evergreen brilliance of Renoir himself.