The Rules of the Game – Greatest film ever made.
What a week – month – year – of viewing I have had! Cinema buffs may lament the day and age we live in, that film makers like Michael Bay can get funded, let alone watched, but what we do have over every generation before us is access, like there has never been before, to the worlds great films. The internet, improvements in digital technology and the rise of adherence to niche markets, means so many incredible films are easily accessible. Surely that makes up for all the Transformers, Water Worlds, Pearl Harbours and Hollywood remakes? Surely!
(Of course none of this means film watchers do seek quality films out, but they never really have. In researching this post I was horrified to find The Shawshank Redemption is at the top of the IMDb list of the greatest films of all time. Sure its a sweet film – but PLEASE! However, The Rules of the Game, like so many other brilliant films, was looked over in its day, so the desire for entertainment over quality is not new nor is it particular to this age of viewing. )
I had the enormous pleasure of seeing The Rules of the Game last weekend. Hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, I”ve added some trailers into this post – something I rarely do – because the film is so good, so beautiful and so deeply clever – and the trailers give a solid taste for this. To say I had a wonderful experience is an understatement. This film has dark subject matter, but shrouds it in the playful foolish joy of human interaction and the ridiculous way a human will hurtle their way unthinking through life. I found this charming 6 minute film on You Tube of Jean Renoir chatting about the reception the film received and how he claims it does actually hurt when people hate your film:
Remember – Jean Renoir is the famous Augusts son. This is a man raised on fine art as if it were bread and butter.
Ok – for those of you who haven’t seen this film but who are going to rush out and find it right away, I shall add a plot:
The film begins with the aviator André Jurieux landing at Le Bourget Airfield just outside Paris, France. He is greeted by his friend, Octave, who reveals that Christine, the woman André loves, has not come to the airfield to greet him. André is heartbroken. When a radio reporter comes to broadcast his first words upon landing, he explains his sorrow and denounces the woman who has spurned him. Christine, an Austrian, is listening to the broadcast from her apartment in Paris as she is attended by her maid, Lisette. Christine has been married to Robert, Marquis de la Cheyniest for three years. Lisette has been married to Schumacher, the gamekeeper at the country estate, for two years, but she is more devoted to Madame Christine. Christine’s past relationship with André is openly known by her husband, her maid, and their friend Octave. After Christine and Robert playfully discuss André’s emotional display and pledge devotion to one another, Robert excuses himself to make a phone call. He arranges to meet Geneviève, his mistress, the next morning.
At Geneviève’s apartment, Robert announces he must end their relationship, but invites her to join them for a weekend retreat to Robert and Christine’s country estate, La Colinière, inSologne. Later, Octave induces Robert to invite André to the country as well. They joke that André and Geneviève will pair off and solve everyone’s problems. At the estate, Schumacher is policing the grounds, trying to get rid of rabbits. Marceau, a poacher, sneaks onto the grounds to retrieve a rabbit caught in one of his snares. Before he can get away, Schumacher catches him and begins to march him off the property when Robert demands to know what is going on. Marceau explains that he can catch rabbits, and Robert offers him a job as a servant. Once inside the house, Marceau flirts with Schumacher’s wife, Lisette.
At a masquerade ball, various romantic liaisons are made. In the estate’s dark, secluded greenhouse, Octave declares that he, too, loves Christine and they impulsively decide to run away together. Schumacher and Marceau, who have both been expelled from the estate after a fight over Lisette, observe the greenhouse scene and mistake Christine for Lisette, because Christine is wearing Lisette’s cape and hood. Octave momentarily returns to the house and, while there, Lisette talks him out of running off with Christine. Consequently, he sends André to meet Christine. When André reaches the greenhouse, Schumacher mistakes him for Octave, who he believes is going to steal his wife. He shoots and kills André, which Robert subsequently explains to his guests as an “accident”.
One of the traits that makes a great artist is their ability to “get over” their stuff and write with a clear perspective. As a writer, I am most envious of this ability. To observe without judgement is crucial to storytelling – primarily because people are so filled with judgement, you can be sure they will add their own. Jean Renoir reaches perfect heights with this technique in The Rules of The Game. He shows no judgement – he merely reveals these people as they are, almost as if he were following them around with a camera. These people are loveable and instantly identifiable and (as Renoir says so eloquently in his interview above) relentlessly corrupt. The shudder at the core of this film is recognition of myself – both as participant in the rules of the game of life, and judge of others in their participation in the rules of life. Here is the films genius. The viewer feels as though they are one of the guests at La Colinière while quietly judging all the others around them.
I wrote a condensed version (still in progress) of Slavoj Ziezek’s interpretation of Lacan – one chapter in particular deals with “The Big Other”. That is the self-imposed rules of life that govern everything that need to be learnt before we are able to immerse ourselves in society. This is a film that deals with the big other. Certain rules are easily broken, other rules are never to be broken. And they are not the rules you think. One may have affairs, but to leave one’s partner is unforgivable. One may play and frolic with one’s servants, but to forget to wield power over them is foolish. One may be engaged with the ugliest of thoughts about the person next to you, but to reveal those thoughts is profoundly impolite. And the rules go on and on. This is at the heart of the great double standard that Lacan seems to think is inescapable and Renoir thinks is inexcusable.
Unlike Rashamon which I reviewed yesterday and is also considered a masterpiece, The Rules of The Game shrouds its dark complex subject matter in a frivolous (very funny) comedy with camera work and staging that builds into a giddy crescendo. On a pure entertainment level, The Rules of the Game is an amusing upstairs-downstairs farce that shows two societies — the aristocracy and their servants — grappling with similar issues of extramarital affairs, unrequited love and anti-Semitism.
That farce, which takes place at the country spread of Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio, best known as the doe-eyed croupier in “Casablanca”, who is absolutely superb as the borderline useless man who has money and therefore everything), evolves into tragedy when the romantic players — upstairs and downstairs — resort to fisticuffs and even gunfire.
“Corneille,” says an exasperated de la Chesnaye to his butler (Eddy Debray), as pandemonium takes over the household. “Stop this farce!”
“Which one, m’sieur?” asks the butler, without a hint of irony.
But it’s not just the comedy that makes this film so special. The visual design is almost beyond comparison. The camera (as I stated above) makes one feel a perpetual member of the party as it intricately weaves and ducks and dances through the intricately choreographed movements of the cast. Sometimes it sits tight, capturing the characters in richly arranged tableaux as they saunter, waltz, duck and flirt their way throughout this ornate country house. The effect on the viewer is to move our out of a certain kind of reality into the dream like state we all want these rules to give us. You don’t quite feel that you are in a dream, but you don’t quite feel this is all real either, and that is the point. The point of the film, and the point of the rules. We watch life at its messiest unfold at its most beautiful.
And of course the one who dies, the one we lose, is the only cast member who has ever actually achieved anything. It is the Hero who is sacrificed for the rules.
There isn’t much to say about this great great film that hasn’t already been said. And yet I still managed 1500 words. A wonderful, beautiful experience.