Friday, January 07, 2011

The Rules of the Game (1939)

La règle du jeu, France, 106 minutes
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Jean Renoir, Carl Koch
Photography: Jean-Paul Alphen, Jean Bachelet, Jacques Lemare, Alain Renoir
Editors: Marthe Huguet, Marguerite Renoir
Cast: Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Jean Renoir, Mila Parély, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, Roland Toutain, Odette Talazac, Claire Gérard

It may be hard to imagine now what made The Rules of the Game so controversial in its time and place—Paris, 1939—but then it may not be so easy either to grasp the circumstances of that time and place: a European economy long mired in the doldrums of a global depression and pestilent politics, with the shadows of Hitler's Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Russia creeping ever steadily across the landscape.

There's little question that it was controversial. Director Jean Renoir in an introduction to the film that appears on the Criterion edition and was shot more than 20 years after the initial release of this film, expresses his conviction that it's about a society "rotten to the core." He also notes that the aristocracy took evident exception to the events depicted, destroying seats at the premiere. One man evidently attempted to set the theater on fire. The ruling regime subsequently banned it. Ah, France. Renoir wryly notes that of all his films this was "clearly the biggest failure."

In fact, Renoir and all concerned took the initial reception so badly—and here we detour briefly into the tortuous history of the thing—that he went to that first 94-minute version and hacked out 13 minutes in an attempt to make it more palatable to audiences. Then World War II came along, and eventually the film was all but lost, the original negative reportedly destroyed in an air raid.

But, like zombies, great films often find a way of making it back to life, albeit in altered form, and the story of The Rules of the Game is as good an example of that as any. In 1959 a reconstruction was undertaken, scraping together pieces of the film from various damaged prints. It was done without the direct involvement of Renoir, but with his knowledge and "blessing," and the result was the 106-minute version first shown in the early '60s that is most familiar to us now. (The Criterion edition includes a number of fascinating features that get into the nuances of tone, even the evident cross-purposes, of the various edits, comparing key sequences side-by-side in split-screen.)

The story of Robert de la Chesnaye (played by a superbly controlled Marcel Dalio) and the weekend that he hosts at his country estate with friends, family, and household staff has thus traveled the proverbial long and winding road. It features some of the finest examples of Renoir's work: a rich and swirling mise en scene, underscored by the use of deep focus to enhance the vastly tasteful production design, with crafty movements of the camera across and in and around the big rooms, mirrors, cascading light and pitch darkness, glittering objects, Chesnaye's endless musical toys. Glamour practically beams from every corner of every frame, and even when the sets and costumes occasionally feel oddly cheap and rickety somehow that only contributes more to an overbrimming yet sly sense of Renoir's contempt.

Octave (played with avuncular confidence by Renoir) provides the unifying point of view, the character around which the other main players revolve, a member of the upper class by dint of his upbringing and past connections with Robert's wife Christine de la Chesnaye (played by Nora Gregor) and his current status as a struggling impoverished artist. Good performances are peppered throughout: Roland Toutain as the love-dumb aviator who adores Christine; Paulette Dubost as Christine's chirpy-bright and largely immoral maid Lisette; Julien Carette as Marceau, Lisette's sleazy would-be lover; Gaston Modot as the estate's groundskeeper, husband of Lisette, and moronically dangerous proto-Nazi; and many more.

The whole thing moves at a rapid pace, keeps its whirling confusion of smug privilege and fatuous self-satisfactions ever at the forefront. Fast-forward it for a minute or two, particularly in the interior scenes filled with people at the estate, or the elaborate entertainment of the party, and it takes on the ornate charm of a brilliantly orchestrated dance. If the complicated chases and slapstick fights that occupy much of the third quarter frequently verge on tedium, tipping dangerously close to incoherent narrative confusion, it nevertheless remains a pleasure to absorb as it passes.

Along the way The Rules of the Game arguably lays the ground for the kind of upstairs/downstairs class-conflict drama that Luis Bunuel would attack far more caustically, or that handsomely appointed public television productions would take on more circumspectly, with all due respect for their sumptuous betters. Robert Altman's Gosford Park may be the most recent worthy heir to it, equally capable of the gradated balancing act this manages to muster. The servants are as fucked up as their masters. The hunt is a grotesque pantomime; animals evidently harmed. Anti-Semitism makes a few unpleasant appearances. Everyone talks too much and says too little, eats too much, drinks too much, laughs too much—yet they all remain utterly charming, and on to the next bubbly event.

In the end, the willful refusal to acknowledge a tragedy as anything other than the result of silly and meaningless behavior, hiding behind a show of plain bucking up and keeping a stiff upper lip, remains subtle and arguably too interpretable—most of the characters seem to agree that it's all faintly admirable, and in some of the film's cuts they might even get away with that. But ultimately of course it's just as chintzy as some of the film's accouterments, and it's exactly, I think, how Renoir at least intended it: tawdry, shocking, and all too easily indulged hypocrisy. It's no wonder they pitched a fit.

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