For his part, Jean Renoir continued his work as one of the foremost humanists of the cinema. His third and final period as a director begins with Le Fleuve (The River, 1951), an independently produced film based on Rumer Godden’s novel and shot entirely in Calcutta. This relaxed and contemplative coming-of-age story, beautifully photographed in Technicolor, represented a return to the naturalism of Renoir’s early work and won the International Award at the Venice Film Festival. Le Carrosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1953), in contrast, displayed an intense interest in theatrical film style and gave Anna Magnani one of her greatest roles as Camilla, the fiery diva of a traveling theater troupe.
Though Eric Rohmer has called The Golden Coach “the ‘open sesame’ of all of Renoir’s work,” it was not well received upon its initial release. Renoir was unable to find backing for another film until French Cancan (a k a Only the French Can, 1954), his first work made in France in fifteen years. This valentine to the Moulin Rouge nightclub met with great public success and featured a number of French music hall performers in cameo roles, including a very brief appearance by Edith Piaf.
Renoir’s Elena et les hommes (Paris Does Strange Things, 1956) starred In-grid Bergman, Jean Marais, and Mel Ferrer in a delicate love letter to a bygone age. Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, 1959) gave the director the chance to use multiple cameras for the first time, shooting the film in the manner long routinely used by television sitcoms. Loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Testament of Doctor Cordelier stars Jean-Louis Barrault as Cordelier and his mad alter-ego, Opale, and is shot in stark black-and-white, in contrast to the lush color cinematography of Renoir’s other films of his final period. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Picnic on the Grass, 1959) is a topical fantasy shot partly in black-and-white and in delicious pastel colors; at once ephemeral and melancholic, it is as if the director were acknowledging his bewilderment in the face of the “civilizing” forces of modern society.
Le Ca-poral épinglé (The Elusive Corporal, 1962) is a World War II tale of the numerous escape attempts of a corporal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) who is incarcerated in a series of German prison camps. In these films, we can see a mature, relaxed, contemplative Renoir, secure in his accomplishments and aware of his unique place in the cinematic pantheon, as one of the few classical French directors revered by the new criticism of Cahiers du Cinéma.