Monday, September 17, 2007

 

It's not force of habit

NOTE: Ranked No. 1 on my all-time top 100 of 2012


"The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons."
Jean Renoir as Octave in The Rules of the Game

By Edward Copeland
Something magical happens between a viewer and their favorite films. Perhaps it's close to being in love, but I'm not sure. All I know is that every time I watch my favorite film of all time, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, I feel as if I'm seeing it for the very first time, even if I know the film intimately well.

ROBERT: Corneille! Put an end to this farce!
CORNEILLE: Which one, your lordship?



At the opening of The Rules of the Game, a title card declares that the film is "not aiming to be a study of manners," a bone they tossed after the initial hostile reaction to the film in 1939 France, where many felt that Renoir's "dramatic fantasy" about society was ill-timed as the drumbeats of war approached from Hitler to the east. Of course, the movie is a study of manners and a lot more. Disguised as somewhat of a bedroom farce, The Rules of the Game cuts deeper the more you delve into it and the more you learn about the time period in which Renoir created it. For those who are unfamiliar with the story of The Rules of the Game (and shame on you for being unfamiliar), we begin with the triumphant landing at Paris' Le Bourget airfield of aviator Andre Jurieu (Roland Toutain), who has just completed a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 23 hours, much like Charles Lindbergh.

Here, which I myself learned partly thanks to the brilliant two-disc Criterion Collection DVD of the film, lies some of the social commentary that got people in Paris up in arms in 1939. The film came after Lindbergh had gone to Berlin to receive an award from Adolf Hitler and become a Nazi apologist. The airfield itself also was heavily laden with symbolism, as it was the spot where French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier landed following the Munich Conference between him, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Hitler and Mussolini, where the French and British leaders gave Hitler the OK to take Czechoslovakia, wrongly assuming this would appease the power-mad Nazi. However, while politics may be lurking below the surface of Renoir's film, it's thwarted love that's on Jurieu's mind. He's unable to accept acclaim as a hero because the object of his affections, Christine (Nora Gregor), is not there to greet him, being married and all. When a radio correspondent asks Andre if he's happy, he responds, "I've never been so unhappy in my life. I made this flight for a woman and she's not here to welcome me." He even goes so far as to accuse Christine of disloyalty over the radio for all of France to hear. He and Christine's common friend Octave (played by Renoir himself) chastises Jurieu for his public outburst.

The sad truth is that Christine is loyal to her marriage, though she operates under the misconception that women can have friendships with men. As her faithful maid Lisette (the delightful Paulette Dubost) tells her, "Friendship with a man? When pigs fly." Christine asks Lisette about Lisette's lovers (who include Octave), even though she too is married, to the game warden at Christine's country estate. Lisette openly admits to them and says her husband is "no trouble," though admitting about men that "the more you give, the more they want." Christine's reaching out for friends is understandable. She's from Austria and is looked upon as an outsider for being a "foreigner" in French high society, a status she gained by marrying Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), himself viewed somewhat suspiciously by society since he's Jewish.

However, Robert doesn't hold the idea of fidelity as closely as Christine, still carrying on with his lover Genevieve (Mila Parely), a relationship that preceded his marriage. However, when Christine feels bad for "lying" to Andre, even if only implicitly, Robert decides it's time to end his affair with Genevieve and try to become "worthy" of his wife. He first calls Genevieve and explains he needs to talk with her, so he tells her it's over the following morning at her apartment in a conversation bookended by Buddha statues beside each performer. Genevieve doesn't want to let Robert go, though she admits that she's not certain if her feelings for him are love or force of habit. The night before Robert gives Genevieve her walking papers, she's gossiping with some of her social friends and reminds them of a maxim by Chamfort: "Love as it exists in society is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins." Meanwhile, Octave is still trying to comfort his distraught aviator friend, who drives his car into a ditch, nearly killing them both. Octave then shows up at Robert and Christine's place and as Renoir serves as the film's director, Octave tries to conduct the action as well, encouraging Christine and Robert to invite Jurieu to the gathering at their country estate, La Coliniere.

Octave plays off his friendship with Christine that dates back to their childhood, when he was taught under the tutelage of Christine's father, a famous orchestra conductor. As a price, Robert wants Octave to try to take Genevieve off his hands, since she'll be there as well. It also means that Lisette will be reunited with her husband Schumacher (Gaston Modot), who has been bugging the marquis to move his wife permanently to the estate, but Lisette is so devoted to Christine she says she'd rather get divorced first. As the action shifts to La Coliniere, the film's final major players (and an assortment of minor but highly entertaining guests) take their places for the events that transpire. While the romantic entanglements of Christine, Robert, Andre and Genevieve are all in place, the talked-about fling between Lisette and Octave doesn't come up when her husband Schumacher is on the scene, but a new player enters the picture in the form of would-be rabbit poacher Marceau (Julien Carette).

There's also the minor player St. Aubin (Pierre Nay), who'd previously been seen at Genevieve's Paris card game. He wants to gossip about Christine and Andre with the General (Pierre Magnier), who will have none of it. He's at the estate to hunt, not to write his memoirs, the General tells St. Aubin, who later becomes a possible romantic interest for Christine once she discovers Robert's lies about Genevieve. Besides, as the General tells St. Aubin, Christine and Robert are "a vanishing breed" in terms of class. Among the various guests at the country estate include an openly gay character (Roger Forster). Though the character is only referred to in the credits as "the homosexual," it is a remarkable event for a film made in the 1930s. Everyone in the film seems to recognizes his sexuality, though it's not an issue in terms of the romantic rambunctiousness, but no one seems slightly bothered by it and he's never the object of ridicule or cheap jokes. Then again, I really shouldn't be surprised because the sophistication and layers within The Rules of the Game truly seem to be bottomless.

As I mentioned before, La Coliniere is a mark for the peasant Marceau, who has to make ends meet by raiding the marquis' bountiful crop of squatting rabbits. Schumacher has advised his boss that if he put up fences on the estate, it would help alleviate both his rabbit and poaching problems, but Robert is against both rabbits and fences. When Schumacher catches Marceau red-handed, Robert is relieved that someone is doing something about the rabbits and hires Marceau on as a domestic (where he meets and flirts with Schumacher's wife Lisette). Of course, rabbits (and other game) are key to the movie's most famous sequence. The General said he was there to hunt, and boy do they ever. Throughout Rules, Renoir employs long takes and very few cuts (though he does toss in a dissolve here and there). That all changes with the sequence of the hunt where the editing style contains more than half of the cuts in the entire film. The movie was edited by Marguerite Renoir, who in addition to working on the many of Jean Renoir's films, kept working well into the 1970s, including on Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin-Feminin. She also took Jean Renoir's name as they were longtime companions, though never legally married. The sequence of the hunt is quite remarkable, with the sound definitely seeming to echo the noise of far-off gunfire, perhaps heralding the war threat looming in France and the world at that time. The hunt nearly divides The Rules of the Game equally, but it truly makes the point about its well-heeled characters who find no problem making sport of the little creatures that trample beneath their feet. Schumacher and others march through the trees, beating the bark to force the animals out into the open so they can be easy prey for the well-to-do in need of diversion. The quick cutting is truly remarkable, especially coming after the languid and leisurely pace of takes that have come up to this point. Guns fire. Birds fall. Aims are taken. Rabbits die. More shots echo from the weapons of the bourgeoisie. It's really an almost horrifying sequence and that seems to be precisely what Renoir wants. In fact, the last shot of the actual hunting section stops its quick cuts to linger on the final twitches of a poor bunny, stretching out and dying in the dirt. Of course after the hunt has ended, the various players are quick to resume their other preoccupations before the various animal carcasses have even been collected. Guests fight over whose bullet took down a bird. Genevieve takes the opportunity to try again to talk Robert into letting her back into his life, but Robert admits that he's bored with the subject. "You can fight hatred, not boredom," Genevieve sighs. Unfortunately for Robert, Christine spots the final kiss between the two and realizes that her husband has been lying to her and the controlled chaos of the hunt will spill into uncontrolled chaos back at La Coliniere and there will be an actual victim just like the doomed animals.

I think Renoir foreshadows this in the very first scene of the film. I've blown up a screenshot from this sequence at the right. You tell me: Are those rabbit fur gloves that Andre Jurieu is wearing when he lands at the airfield? What happens at La Coliniere up until the tragic denouement is farce at its highest level. A party is being held to celebrate Jurieu's trans-Atlantic achievement, complete with performances of varying stripes, a masquerade ball and Robert's chance to show off this proudest acquisition in his vast collection of musical and mechanical devices. Of course, all this merriment comes amidst the various romantic upheavals. One particularly great sequence, depicts a player piano churning out a tune as people costumed as ghosts and a skeleton parade among the guests in delighted and false fright. Of course, most of the guests are oblivious to the tensions lurking beneath the surface. As Genevieve notes at one point, "Sincere people are such bores" and sincerity takes its toll on the two most naive characters, Christine and Andre.

When Robert dumped Genevieve, she warned him that if Christine found out, she'd leave him over the lies not the affair and Christine's discovery during the hunt still is rippling through her system. Genevieve had intended to leave the estate when Robert literally gave her the kissoff, but Christine talks her into staying, not realizing what she witnessed was an ending, not a continuation. This shock to Christine's world view also makes her prey for the prowling St. Aubin, who uses the skeleton dance, with its shifting lights and shadows, as an occasion to hit on her. The mood also gives Marceau the chance to smooch more with Lisette, though Schumacher is never too far behind. The hurt Andre also looms in the shadows, watching Christine and St. Aubin and growing ever more jealous. The situation eventually grows more out of control, with Schumacher chasing Marceau around with a gun and the guests believing it's merely part of the show. It's what prompts Robert to tell his majordomo Corneille (Eddy Debray) to "put an end to this farce." When the marquis reluctantly has to fire Schumacher and Marceau, he tells them sympathetically about his guests, "It may be wrong of them but they value their lives." They probably don't value their lives as much as I value Renoir's remarkable movie.

I've probably given away too many details for those who haven't had a chance to let The Rules of the Game into their moviegoing lives, so I want to stop and remark more on other aspects of the film, most importantly its strange journey to the classic status it holds now. Two years prior to the release of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Renoir and his team of cinematographers, led by Jean Bachelet, were employing great use of deep-focus photography as well as lighting before Welles and Gregg Toland took it to an even higher level. I've already noted the editing, but I need also to credit the script by Renoir with the collaboration of Carl Koch, which overflows with great dialogue. What I find interesting though is what year should The Rules of the Game be considered released in? When it premiered in Paris in 1939, it ran 96 minutes, but after the disastrous premiere, Renoir cut it down to 81 minutes in length. That version didn't show up in the U.S. until 1950. During the war, the original negatives were destroyed by bombing. In 1959, Jean Gaborit and Jacques Marechal, with the blessing of Renoir, set out to assemble a restored version of the film and the cut they ended up with, the version that routinely tops best lists, the version that I love, ran 106 minutes.

Of course, all the footage was originally filmed by Renoir, so it's not as if reshoots were involved and it didn't enter my life until I had a film class as a freshman in college 20 years ago. The film historian Christopher Faulkner says on the Criterion Collection DVD, that he compared the shorter and longer versions of The Rules of the Game and that the shorter one plays much more harshly, not allowing for the character development that the longer one allows. Octave, who is among the most sympathetic of characters, seems to have more sinister motives in the short version, so Faulkner reports. He doesn't recognize himself as much as a "failure" and a "leech" and when he unwittingly leads to the tragic end for the doomed aviator, in the shorter version, it reportedly seems deliberate. We should all be grateful that Gaborit and Marechal did what they did in 1959. To be able to take materials that were largely ignored and discarded and to turn them into the 106-minute masterpiece we have now is quite a remarkable achievement.

Its influence can be seen in many places, from direct descendants such as Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, (which Stephen Sondheim turned into the musical A Little Night Music and also begat Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy) and Robert Altman's Gosford Park as well as less-obvious inspirations such as The Big Chill. As the General is fond of saying about the marquis and his wife, they are a vanishing breed, exhibiting true class, and the same can be said of the great Jean Renoir who made a lot of truly great films in his lifetime and of them, of all films I've ever seen, The Rules of the Game is by far the greatest. Monsieur Renoir, please take a bow.



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Comments:
thanks for sharing your thoughts on this film. I could appreciate a lot of this film when i watched it, althogh when i shared some of my thoughts on the film when i watched it this past month i did get some slack for some of my comments.

thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I'm certainly glad I've seen this film...it's great.
 
It's a sensational film, to be sure. And though it's proven reasonably influential over the years, I think the world would be a much happier place to be in if more of today's filmmakers (particularly the Americans) turned to Renoir's gentle though deceptively cutting wisdom for inspiration rather than churning out hollow, soulless variations on style-heavy joints by the likes of Wes Anderson and David Lynch and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (all of them worthy filmmakers, except that they've inadvertently unleashed much evil upon us).

In the meantime, my favourite Renoir film, Grand Illusion, seems to be turning into an artefact. Nobody writes about it anymore. Maybe I should. Maybe I will.
 
Great post. I agree with Goran, the film should be more influential with modern American filmmakers than it actually seems to be. While I do prefer this one to Grand Illusion, I saw Grand Illusion again recently and thought it held up wonderfully. Events in our modern world have caught up with it (alas!) and to my eyes Grand Illusion's relevance had increased, not lessened, since I first saw it twenty years ago.

It would give me great pleasure to see anything you write on Grand Illusion, Goran; I always find your comments highly worthwhile.
 
Re: "Grand Illusion", it's funny because I actually tried to see this at least twice in theaters and found myself attacked by my damnable filmnambulism both times after half an hour in and felt vaguely guilty for decades -- but I recently saw it on TV (via TCM and a DVR) and finally stayed wide awake and got what a wonderful film it really is. In fact, though for years "The Rules of the Game" was my all time favorite film, right now I'd rather watch "Grand Illusion" again.

Which brings us back to Renoir's influence. What about Billy Wilder? Certainly "Grand Illusion" has a lot in common, not only the setting, with"Stalag 17", even if the plot couldn't be more different. And, while I can't think of any single film that seems like an homage to "Rules", Wilder's overall world view seems pretty similar, though more cynical.

If Renoir reminds us that everyone has their reasons, then Wilder says "yes, and their usually bad ones."
 
I didn't participate in your poll, Edward, because I don't know enough foreign films. But the ones I do know are very special to me.

When I clicked over from the House Next Store, I figured what #1 would be, but I have to say my heart skipped a little beat seeing the picture at the top of the page, before the words. That's how special this film is. I was thrilled that this is number one from such a distinguished list of pollees, run so well by you.
 
thanks for your post. i just watched rules of the game minutes ago in dvd and i was amazed with its brilliance and its issues still relevant years & years after it was made. it seems human nature - sadly - is was and will forever be the same.
 
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