dir: Jean Renoir
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When you’re told a film is one of the best of all time, you’re naturally going to be wary. The title is usually foisted upon Citizen Kane, but just as often it’s trotted out in terms of this film.
It’s easier to talk about popular films that have been seen by squillions of people, and judging their impact on the audience’s consciousness through the years rather than about some film from 70 years ago few people you know have ever heard of let alone seen. It one thing to debate whether Apocalypse Now is great, or Lawrence of Arabia, but arguing about something no-one under the age of 50 has seen is the ultimate in film wankery.
I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve watched the restored, Criterion Collection edition, with the commentaries by experts, the apologetic introduction by Renoir himself, scene by scene analyses by film experts, and a whole bunch of other documentaries on the film and the director. I just don’t see it.
See, I can watch Casablanca, and no-one needs to explain to me why it's a classic or a great film. If you need to explain it to me, then, well, draw your own conclusions.
It’s a pleasant enough film, don’t get me wrong. It has some interesting characters and seems to be saying lots of stuff about lots of topics. It’s even a pretty funny comedy in certain bits, if not downright farcical. Still, I’m not yet sure it’s the best thing since sliced cocaine.
Also, I grant that it is meticulously put together, is impeccably filmed and has a lot going on and beneath the surface. The problem is that viewed in such a way, it becomes an intellectual exercise in trying to define why something is a masterpiece, rather than watching it and being able to experience it for yourself.
If I tell you that the Australian no-budget vampire film Bloodlust is the greatest film of all time, you’re not going to care. If every film critic and film academic tells you Bloodlust is the greatest film ever, you’ll watch it, and from its opening frames you’ll be asking yourself “what’s so great about this?” Is it the copious use of fake blood, the appalling accents, the stupid actors, or the amount and quality of boobies?
It could be any one of those things, but the problem is both expectation and the attention you pay to the elements when you should be just watching the damned thing. If you just watch a movie without thinking about its outside reputation, you’ll respond according to whether you get into it or not. When you’re watching it from the point of view of history you are, to put it poetically, fucked.
Andre (Roland Toutain) lands his plane in Paris, after a heroic 23 hour flight from the States. Now it takes less than half of that, but back then, in the 1930s, I guess it was something of an achievement. When he doesn’t see the woman he loves waiting for his at the airport, he is heartbroken, and tells the world so through the magic of the radio.
Listening to the radio many miles away is the object of his affections, Christine (Nora Gregor) who seems unmoved by his remonstrations. She prepares for some enchanted evening by putting on her jewels and furry finery. She wanders into a room containing her semi-aristocrat husband Robert (Marcel Dalio) who’s also listening to the radio. He knows the aviator is talking about his wife Christine, but doesn’t seem too miffed about anything, and even seems quite forgiving. Moments after his wife asserts her complete trust in him Robert places a call to his mistress Genevieve (Mila Parely), who’s a hysterical strumpet if ever I saw one. And trust me, I've known a few.
Christine is attended by her virtual lady in waiting Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who, though married, feels more loyalty to her mistress (in the employment sense) than she does to her husband, who works on the country estate of his Lordship.
Amidst all this turmoil are the haute bourgeoisie couple’s servants, who seem to have a complex array of infidelities themselves, and the tap-dancing fool Octave (played by the director himself) acting as a strange mediator between the various worlds and couples. He doesn’t literally tap dance. Don’t be expecting a musical, for Christ’s sake. He does mug the screen and the other characters more than some angry, stupid guy with a knife who thinks he's got adequate justification for committing crimes against the helpless.
Octave is mostly comedic relief, but he also plays his part as a loyal friend to Andre and his Lordship Robert, and to Christine herself, since he and she grew up together in Salzburg. Since he is loyal to all of them, he is, perhaps, loyal to none.
Andre is suicidal and despondent over Christine’s seeming rejection, and wants another chance to convince her of the sincerity of his love. Christine, who remains, at least to me, a perplexing and opaque character throughout, doesn’t need convincing, but wants to see him again all the same. To Lisette she makes a statement of how tiring sincere men are. At any given stage throughout the film she is pledging her undying love to a different guy depending on what time it is.
She is infuriating in this sense, resembling some kind of exotic, transplanted flower swaying whichever way the wind blows. It would be a mistake to focus on her choices as having any real importance to the story, since whatever she wants changes from scene to scene.
The central couple of Christine and Robert are going to their country mansion for a few weeks, and invite their various fellow upper middle-class parasites and other hangs-on to come with them. Octave urges Robert to allow Andre to come along to. Why, I’m not sure, but it seems to be out of some desire to help out Christine, Andre, or Robert.
During a walk around the palatial grounds, the lord of the manor sees his groundskeepers catching a poacher who’s getting a rabbit out of a trap. His Lordship has also simultaneously stated that he doesn’t want fences keeping the rabbits out, but he also want the rabbits kept out. For some reason he takes a shine to the poacher, Marceau (Julien Carette), and makes him one of his domestic servants. Through him we see the downstairs world, just as rife with prejudice and immorality as that of the masters they serve. Marceau instantly takes a shine to Lisette, who claims loyalty to only one person, and even then she’s lying.
The point of a trip to the country like this for people of this type is hunting, and we get to see a pretty famous scene of pheasants and rabbits being massacred by the truckload. I’m suspecting that the film would not and could not have that disclaimer at the end saying “no animals were hurt in the making of this movie” since clearly, a lot of them were. I actually think it immediately improves any movie to have animals sacrificed to it. It appeases the gods of cinema. They like blood. They crave it.
The various happy aristos decide a night of plays and performances is the thing, with something like a bourgeois version of a pantomime eisteddfod in the offing, so they practice and come up with something to be staged at the end of the week. I’m not joking about this: one of the songs sung by the performers onstage is about how happy and gay they are. Octave runs around in a bear suit trying to get people to get him out of it, whilst Andre and Christine figure out what to do, as Schumacher (Gaston Modot) chases the peasant Marceau around the chateau with a gun taking shots at him.
Mistaken identity, reversals of fortune, forbidden love and murder are all in the offing before the final shot, both literally AND literally (that’s not a typo). And the final insult is the way everything is swept, crammed and wedged under the carpet, in accordance with the empty propriety that damns these characters.
To say that the flick has a plot would be a mistake, since I don’t think a plot really occurs. Sure, there’s a beginning, middle and end, and I’m sure there’s nothing in this that wasn’t painstakingly constructed by Renoir regardless of how breezy and easygoing it all seems, but it’s a film without much of a plot that just lets its characters do what they want or what seems appropriate depending on the ‘rules’ governing their behaviour, and what seems funny at the time.
What is the Game and what are these Rules, you might be asking yourself. The Rules are the ones dictating behaviour amongst and amidst the social strata in this corrupt milieu. There are no expectations of virtue in one social class above another: both the Upstairs and the Downstairs in this flick commit the same sins, but the outcomes are different depending on the rules for each class.
All adhere and all play along with it. When Schumacher pursues the former poacher Marceau for fooling around with his wife Lisette, he tries shooting him whilst surrounded by guests at the party. Most barely notice, none are afraid, and some pass wry comments along the lines of, “well, he’s just doing what is required of him”. They are actors within a play within a play, and its our honour and privilege to view them in their various states and arrays for about two hours in the restored version. They’re an interesting couple of hours.
I don’t know if it’s the greatest film ever. I will say that it is well made and entertaining, but not the all-consuming experience I would expect with such a mantle being bandied about. Maybe if I watch it a few dozen times I’ll agree just to shut people up. You occasionally owe it to yourself to see these kinds of milestones, if only to find out what all the fuss is about.
7 understanding, sympathetic, modern cuckolded husbands seething with murderous rage out of 10
“It breaks my heart, but I can't expose my guests to your firearms. It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives.” – Robert de la Cheyniest, The Rules of the Game.