monday, march 16, 2009
The Rules of the GameThe first time I saw Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game (La Regle du jeu) it was at the behest of a film expert that held the work in the highest esteem. I found it interesting although a bit curious and, in the end, a bit wanting for all the fuss that had been made about it.
Still, I have never found such a broad consensus about a work on the part of such a divergent set of critics. The film is almost universally considered one of the greatest ever made.
Either all these film experts were vastly mistaken or my ability to understand the work was wanting and the latter seemed an infinitely more probable possibility.
Upon rewatching The Rules of the Game more than 15 years later I was astonished to discover it offered almost completely different experience - one of a rich and complex work that left me slack-jawed by its power. A fair bit of that can be attributed to my greater experience and familiarity with film as a medium but part of it was one of the more subtle traits of the work.
The great critic Pauline Kael once noted that Renoir never stooped to instructing his audience how they were supposed to feel - an attribute she suggested might actually constitute "the basic difference between a hack and a great film-maker."
This incisive point suggests a corollary axiom as well. Like a number of great works of art, the more you focus yourself upon The Rules of the Game , the more it reveals to you. And this doesn't simply happen a single time - it happens every time you watch the film. In fact, the initial viewing that must, by necessity, follow the plot, is in many ways the least satisfying (which isn't to say it is ever unsatisfying).
Of course, Renoir's masterpiece also presents a Charybdis to the Scylla of personal introspection one must invest in the film. There is a mountain of critical appraisal concerning The Rules of the Game that looms over the film presenting a powerful distraction for the viewer.
Expectations for the uninitiated viewer are raised exponentially but Renoir may not meet them the way one supposes. This is particularly perilous for the modern viewer.
The overwhelming importance of plot in modern film - to the point where other aspects of the art are willfully neglected - makes it difficult to come to terms with a film that treats the narrative as just one means of conveying the story. Nuance carries more importance than any openly presented plot point here and allowing one's self to shuck the dependence on the latter is one of the joys in experiencing Renoir.
This odd set of relationships is mirrored among the servants. Christine's personal maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), is married to Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the gamekeeper at Robert's estate, but she keeps a running series of affairs and, for much of the film, is pursued by the poacher-turned-servingman Marceau (Julien Carette).
It is Octave, a childhood friend of Christine's from Bavaria, who moves freely between these two worlds and, importantly, is played by Renoir himself.
The catchword when describing Renoir is "humanism" but it's usually slapped on his work like a bumper sticker with little concern for what really is working beneath the hood of the beast.
The critic Andrew Sarris once bemoaned the almost reflexive description of Renoir's work as "humanist" due to the overuse of the term. Instead of indicating the primacy of the human condition in terms of film, humanism had come, instead, to describe a "crudity of expression" and, too often, a penchant for gross sentimentality - sins Renoir never fell victim to.
Instead, Sarris insisted, there was a faith in the "unifying principles of humanity" evident in Renoir's work that transcended the tawdry associations the term humanism had collected along the way. The evidence of this, Sarris argued, is in the director's preoccupation with his actors. And The Rules of the Game is exhibit A for this tendency.
The humanism in the work emerges with the full blossoming of Renoir's method and his underlying faith in the ability of his actors to evoke the truth of their characters. The director even described the actors as co-directors due to the importance he placed on their input and instincts in keeping the focus on the human element of the drama.
The key, he argued, was to show how the characters adjust to the litany of mundane obstacles in their world that test their particular overreaching theories about the place. It is these "many little sentiments" that ground them - and, by extension, us - from floating free in the realm of the theoretical.
Renoir sets these pair against each other, contrasting them, highlighting various aspects of them and, in the end, dissolving the illusion of differences that we believe set them apart.
Renoir wasn't above using direct symbolism either. On several occasions Lisette is shown eating an apple as she flirts with her paramour. Plot-wise, it is an excuse for her to be in the kitchen where Marceau has been assigned to work but you can be sure the director was well aware of the semiological power of the prop.
It's a connection Renoir makes overt later when she playfully bites his nose while the pair are huddled conspiratorially in the shadows. Her intention for her paramour is as decided as the fate of the pomme. The moment is one of the most decidedly erotic in the film, which is odd on reflection since so much of the drama has to do with love affairs.
But it makes perfect sense that most of the characters seem more interested in the individual moves of the game than the outcome. Except for Lissette who know exactly what she wants.
The interaction between the various characters and the nuances of their individual dramas within The Rules of the Game are reinforced by the technical approach of the director. The famous long takes and deep focus work to layer the story with detail and degrees of meaning - not overwhelm the viewer with auteurist virtuosity. If it's in the film, it was meant to be there, scenes that are superfluous are simply not part of the work.
"The more I learn about my trade the more I incline to direction in depth relative to screen" Renoir said shortly after completing The Rules of the Game . "The better it works, the less I use the kind of set-up that shows two actors facing the camera, like two well-behaved subjects posing for a still portrait."
The constantly moving camera (in lieu of the cuts of montage) and extended field of actions places the characters in detailed relationships to each other in every scene. These connections are never static - positions shift, movements change direction and missteps can often begin a pursuit in an entirely unintended direction.
Sarris insisted this portrayal of "man in his environment photographed by an unblinking camera" provided the true catalyst for neorealism that was to follow after World War II.
And though the conflict is never mentioned in The Rules of the Game, the threat of the war and its likely toll on France when it came looms silently over the seeming inconsequential diversions depicted in the film. Its presence was not accidental. Renoir said the unspoken possibility of the coming conflict provided the film with a "compass of disquiet" that pervades the entire work.
Renoir's achieves this using subtle reference rather than overt depiction. The plot of the film is set in motion with the night-time arrival of Jurieux's plane at Le Bourget airport outside of Paris following his transatlantic flight.
This event ignites the story as it is his infatuation with the married Christine who he made the heroic flight for that will set the existing social order askew.
The inaugural scene of the crowd rushing to greet the plane also contained intentional unsettling associations. The obvious parallel was with Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight just 12 years prior that ended at the same airfield.
Yet, for French audiences it also held a reminder of the adoring throngs that greeted the French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier barely a year prior after he returned from Germany after negotiating the Munich Agreement.
Although the French had been ecstatic over the treaty that ceded much of Czechoslovakia to Germany in an effort to forestall armed conflict (British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously referred to as "peace in our time") the failure of the policy of appeasement was becoming clear by the summer of 1939 and collapsed completely with the invasion of Poland on Sept 1.
Still, in the hands of a more cynical director, this would all be for naught. Having peeled back the facile and tawdry illusions of this privileged group the simplest route would be to present them in a morally inferior light. Renoir, instead, chooses to use the opportunity to accentuate the intrinsic humanity of his characters instead.
The director manages this by deftly and consistently avoiding the temptation to present his characters as stereotypes - none are moral absolutes.
"On this earth there is one thing that is dreadful: that everyone has his reasons," Octave tells Robert in one of the film's most famous lines. And while these reasons may be flawed these characters are on the same road to perdition as we all find ourselves when making the mundane choices that determine the path of our lives.
Renoir takes all these aspirations into the realm of the sublime by crafting a meticulous structure to the film that is so carefully constructed it can fall beneath the viewer's notice. The strange meandering plot, on closer inspection, is revealed to be intricate and precise. Not only does every action - even many of the most seemingly innocuous - have a very real purpose but also devastating repercussions.
The structure of the narrative is even built so the second half of the film mirrors the first as the entire course of The Rules of the Game swings upon the famous "hunting" sequence in the middle. Everything moves to reconciliation up to this point then there is a horrible burst of violence and things dissolve into disarray from that point on.
There is no dispute that whatever constitutes a "great filmmaker" Renoir fits the description. The more difficult problem understands exactly what constitutes his greatness itself. As well as the film cuts the bounds of theory and reveals the nuances of real life, the volumes of exegesis about his work - and the Rules of the Game in particular - create an barrier of theory as well.
The solution, of course, is to simply watch the film and let it speak for itself because none will ever speak so eloquently in praise of it.
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