Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Rules of the Game (1939) - #216

... and the game is called "Dancing on a Volcano."

That's how director Jean Renoir described the process of cinematically representing the society of which he was a part, a French populace that clearly sensed the imminent danger it faced and yet appeared too powerless, unprepared and fatally distracted to do anything about. The Rules of the Game marks a pivotal moment in cinematic and cultural history and now, 70 years after its initial release, stands as one of the supreme touchstones and reference points in the entire domain of film as art and social commentary.

Indeed, I've felt the challenge of blogging about this film building even before it came up in my queue. This is a superior movie and one I've immensely enjoyed watching, closely and carefully over the past several days. But for ease of commentary, give me some (relatively) obscure and underappreciated work any day. There's been no shortage of top quality writing and analysis of this film over the past four or five decades at least, after the fury of WWII had died down and the film was rediscovered by a younger generation than the one that had vilified, virtually censored and almost destroyed it upon its initial release. From it's ignominious debut to its eventual enthronement as a consensus Top Ten in international film polls (and a frequent first, second or third placeholder in the arthouse crowd), The Rules of the Game can attribute a fair amount of its lasting impact to the extraordinary story of the film itself, as an artifact and a brutally honest mirror of a society in denial as it teetered on the very brink of convulsive, violent, self-inflicted trauma.

So let's take a moment to look at the context from which Rules of the Game emerged. Jean Renoir had spent the preceding decade establishing his reputation as a filmmaker of the first rank. With his critically-acclaimed Grand Illusion and smashing commercial success of La Bete Humaine, Renoir had outgrown his "son of the famous painter" reputation and had now established sufficient clout to open his own studio, Nouvelle Editions Francaise. The Rules of the Game was his first and only production for the new company (which was basically put out of business by WWII and Renoir's move to Hollywood), and it was clearly the most ambitious, eagerly anticipated French film of the year. However, its 1939 debut was nothing short of a calamity - audiences howled and raged at the screen, and one viewer went so far as to try to set the theater on fire with a burning newspaper! Renoir was present to witness the fury and by the end of opening week had authorized serious cuts to the film (from 94 to 81 minutes, focusing on the scenes that generated the most visceral reactions.) Even these concessions were not enough to salvage the film's commercial prospects - it closed much more quickly than anyone had anticipated and was eventually censored by the Nazis after they conquered France the following year. The film negative was destroyed during the war and for the next 15 years, only a few flawed versions of the short cut of the film existed, which served to establish its base of support, particularly among younger French cineastes who would go on to lead the New Wave of the late 1950s and '60s.

So Rules of the Game is part of that venerable cultural canon of artworks that generated sincere apoplectic indignation upon first release. I have long been fascinated by these stories, the kind that I've heard associated with music (Stravinsky, Dylan, the Sex Pistols), painting (Picasso, Dada and the Surrealists) and film (Bunuel, Spike Lee and now Renoir.) What is it about these works that gets so deep under people's skins that they lose composure and react so viscerally, supposedly in the name of virtue, good taste and defense of "the sacred?"

Returning then to The Rules of the Game, there's a fair amount that one could focus on. The plot is driven by incidents of marital indiscretion with assorted love triangles popping up like mushrooms in a cow pasture after the rain. But Renoir and countless other continental directors had been dealing with that theme for years - just read through my previous blog posts here! There are acts of violence - murder, a suicide attempt, even the actual on-camera killings of real animals (birds, rabbits, even a cat!) That would certainly bring out contemporary animal rights activists if a popular director showed innocent creatures getting shot in order to "make a point." But no one was talking about animal rights in those days, not with the Third Reich arming itself to the teeth and populist fascism making inroads throughout European society - people were too concerned with protecting their own hides.

No, what really bothered the fashionable audience on the Champs-Elysses (where the film had its premier) was that they themselves, and their peers, were squarely and unambiguously the object of the satire, or one could even say ridicule, that Renoir and his cast and crew created. Dissolution of marriage, the death of heroes, even a bleakly nihilistic resignation to fate and the miseries of life - no problem with any of that... but, impugn our sense of honor?!? Monsieur, you shall hear from my seconds forthwith! Pistols at dawn it shall be!

Renoir's insight and (presumably) earnest desire to awaken his fellow citizens to what he saw happening in and around them was clearly commendable, admirably visionary but for all commercial purposes, terribly naive and misguided if his intention was to make another popular, divertingly pleasant film, as he himself said was his hope in the introduction that he filmed in 1967. We can only be glad that he got it so wrong, so to speak, because if he had been more attuned to the reception his film was likely to generate, he probably would have played it a whole lot safer and we'd be deprived of a stupendous, amazing masterpiece. This is a film that practically demands several viewings to fully appreciate and begin to fathom - the construction of the scenes, the progression of action, the fullness of the characters and the incredibly intricate cross-connections of relationships that continually shift and transform through scene after scene is more than one pass through can assimilate. And the nice thing about it is that watching it is not some grueling cerebral exercise - there's wonderful humor, biting wit, nuanced performance, innovative cinematography, refreshingly natural atmospherics and a host of influence-wielding scenes echoed in film conventions ever since to admire once one has become thoroughly familiar with the plot.

Having enthused to this degree, I guess it's only fitting that I take a few minutes to summarize the story itself for those who haven't seen it yet or want a refresher. My hope is that it only whets your appetite to get personally acquainted with The Rules of the Game, because it really needs to be seen by anyone who wants to be reasonably informed on the great movies of the 20th century. Even if it doesn't move you or live up to the lofty expectations reviews like this create - you still ought to know it for yourself.

So here goes: the film opens with a plane landing out of the darkness after its hero-celebrity pilot Andre Jurieux breaks a record for trans-Atlantic flight. He's greeted by a throng on the tarmac but bluntly expresses his disappointment on a live radio broadcast when his lover Christine fails to be among those in the crowd. His lover, of course, is a woman married to someone other than himself, and we quickly see her in her boudoir, attended by her maid, listening to that same broadcast. Her husband, the Marquis de la Chesnaye, knows of Christine's dalliance and, inspired by her tact in refraining from meeting Jurieux so publicly, decides that he will break off his own affair with Genevieve, a Parisian sophisticate with whom he's become rather bored as of late anyway. Into this entanglement stumbles Octave, played by Renoir, a single, somewhat clownish character who's known Christine since her aristocratic childhood in Austria and has finagled his way into somewhat intimate friendships with most of the other key figures in this social set, even though he himself is poor and rather common. (The actress who played Christine was herself a genuine Austrian princess whose real-life husband created his own share of tensions on the set.)

As events proceed, the upper class complexities find their mirror image among the servants who adopt the attitudes and imitate the behaviors of their masters, broadening Renoir's critique away from the stereotypical "foibles of the rich" and toward something more generically and broadly "wrong" with French (and European) society as a whole. Give Renoir credit for being an equal opportunity offender!

After establishing the main characters in their ordinary Parisian setting, the action shifts to La Chesnaye's country estate where all the elements are assembled for a light-hearted, farcical comedy of manners. One could easily envision the scenes of characters romping through hallways, opening and closing doors in quick succession, mistaken identities and laughs a-plenty as the confusion mounts and narrative levers are pulled. And indeed, a lot of this happens, though with a sharp, critical, cynical edge that cuts a bit deeper than audiences of this time were prepared to endure. And the ending...! I won't say exactly what happens, but in keeping with the tradition of "poetic realism," (c.f. Pepe le Moko, Port of Shadows, La Bete Humaine) it's not exactly happy - or is it? What separates the conclusion of Rules of the Game from the ends of these three popular (and Criterion-worthy!) predecessors is its tidy resolution and nearly flippant equanimity in the face of terrible injustice. A prominent character is killed, both intentionally and accidentally (ponder that one a bit), and other than a few tears shed by an emotionally overwrought maid at the end of a long night, no one seems all that particularly disturbed. It turns out that it was a death that was in the best interests of the survivors... a death made necessary, according to... The Rules of the Game.

This trailer does a better job of presenting the film than any particular scene I could have pulled off of YouTube. I don't think there's a single scene that could be extracted to give sufficient impression of its construction as a whole, so here's just a taste.
And here's my obligatory shout-out to Gaston Modot!

This post also brings the 1930s to a conclusion as far as this series is concerned. It's my 40th review so far in 2009 and I am very eager to move into a new decade and era of film-making history! Thanks to everyone who's been dropping in here - I hope you enjoy the series and I'd love to read your comments, or emails if you prefer.

Next: Rebecca


  1. Hello again,

    Yeas I had read a lot about this movie and its importance in french cinema but still, I prefer Buñuel's social commentary and observations on the burgeoise. Maybe it was the very high expectations I had. I will watch it again in the near future though.

  2. Bunuel is excellent at skewering the bourgeoisie and has an incredible sense of humor. I think Renoir is warmer toward humanity and more accessible to a larger audience. But I get the preference for Bunuel - I was pretty much on that track for years, up until recently. Nowadays I don't like choosing "better or worse" - I think it's possible to fully appreciate them both. And I also had a similar sense of unfulfilled expectations when I first saw ROTG, a year or two ago. Impressed by the plotting but really didn't pick up on all the subtle touches. If you get a chance to watch the special features, I think that will enhance your appreciation quite a bit.

  3. My only problem with ROTG is that it is hard for middle-class modern Americans to sympathize with the elite society presented. Not impossible, but difficult. I think Fellini has the same problem connecting with modern audiences and sensibilities. Still, a wonderfully made film!

  4. I don't think that Renoir sought "sympathy" for the elite society presented - maybe you meant more that Americans have a hard time identifying with them, with which I'd agree. Can't really fault them for failing to meet the needs of an audience 70 or 50 years in the future! :) A big part of my enjoyment of these films is based precisely on the opportunity to connect with different ways of "doing society" found in other countries and in many cases lost in time, since even their cultural successors today can't replicate all the nuances captured in a well-made film.

    I think Renoir was trying to inform the various social classes of his times that they were all pretty similar to each other - no more or less noble, capable of self-control or wise than their counterparts. Classes have a way of resenting those unlike them, whether they are looking up or down the social pyramid at each other.

  5. I think Fellini has the same problem connecting with modern audiences and sensibilities. Still, a wonderfully made film!

  6. Hi, nice post. I have been thinking about this topic,so thanks for sharing.

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