RULES OF THE GAME
"You're not a fool, you're a poet. A dangerous poet."
Film Forum is currently showing a new 35mm print of Jean Renoir's film. I've seen it three times in the past couple of weeks, and will probably squeeze in at least one one more trip.
I've been wracking my brain trying to put words to what it is that makes that movie so special, and I can't do it. I've tried to find writing on the film, and haven't been particularly successful. There's supposed to be a little BFI monograph by V.F.Perkins on RULES that has been delayed again and again and again. I know the usual line is to portray the film as a picture of French society just before WWII, and it certainly is that, but it isn't really that at all. At no time is anything as trivial as politics or current events ever mentioned in the film (which is very likely the point, of course). It's a picture of a bunch of people (of all classes) leading rather silly trivial lives with rather silly trivial mores. The series of ever-so-civilized affairs and social proprieties reveal how shallow the upper classes are, and the lower classes are not much better: at one point a chef mentions how he respects his boss for being angry that potato salad was improperly prepared, for having a palate sensitive enough to realize that the white wine was added after the potatoes had cooled instead of when they were piping hot. That's the sign of a real gentleman! And there are later events that show the real brutality lurking under the civilized veneer, too, and I don't mean just the still-horrifying hunt sequence.
The film isn't just a hatchet job, either. It is clear that Renoir, as director and screenwriter and actor, really loves these people even as he shows us how bloody awful they are. There are no out and out villains, and no out and out heroes. One character, the aviator Jurieu, is repeatedly referred to as a 'hero,' but the character is so unappealing in comparison with his opposite, the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye, that the term doesn't really carry a lot of weight. And Robert is a fascinating character: an accomplished rake who has just cut off a long term affair because he wants to be worthy of his wife, and who has to deal with the fact that his ex-mistress wants him back and his wife isn't happy when she finds out about the affair that was common knowledge to everyone but her. What makes the film special is the way that Renoir is able to show me so thoroughly that, as his own character Octave says, "Everyone has his reasons."
The acting is pretty well perfect. Roland Toutain can't quite make me interested in Andre Jurieu, but this is more than made up for by Marcel Dalio's endlessly fascinating Robert de la Chesnaye. He puts a fascinating twist on his words that makes me wish my French was better so that I could really understand what he's doing.
One thing that keeps coming up, both in print and in the commentaries on the Criterion DVD, is the use of deep focus, which seems to have been revolutionary in France at the time the film was made, or at least which Renoir uses in a way that had not been typical in French films up to that point. And it is marvelous: repeat viewings show all kinds of things going on in all those rooms that can be glimpsed off in the distance, sometimes very important things.
There are lots of incredibly complex shots, with lots of very carefully laid out choreography of actors/characters. One in particular begins as a closeup of Christine, who begins to tell her assembled guests/the audience about her relationship with Andre. As she speaks, her husband Robert (Dalio) and Octave (Renoir) move into view behind her, reacting to her description of her friendship with Andre, clearly mocking her statments that she and Andre are just friends. As her speech ends, Dalio thanks her for her speech, and describes the upcoming delights of the week in the country, the camera moves to include the other guests, and there is a good deal of carefully worked out activity as the shot comes to an end. I'd be here all day if I described all of it, and worked out all of the ramifications of each move and gesture. An amazing shot, only one of dozens of similar virtuosity throughout the film. And Renoir's technique is never obtrusive, never calling attention to itself.
One more important thing. Part of the danger of reading/writing about RULES OF THE GAME is the impression that the film is a humorless solemn monster. Make no mistake: RULES OF THE GAME is one of the most entertaining of the films usually considered as "classics." See it. See it often. It repays repeat viewings like few movies I know.