B y S t a c e y R i c h t e r
TALK ABOUT BEING ahead of one's time. Jean Renoir's critically celebrated The Rules of the Game opened in Paris in 1939 to a hail of venom and fury--audiences jeered, spat and set fire to sheets of newspaper in hopes of burning the theater down. The film--a funny, ironic vision of the rich and their servants at play in a country house--is now considered one of the great masterpieces of cinema, but on the eve of the German occupation, any criticism of French society was considered unpatriotic. A half hour of footage was cut in hopes of excising whatever it was audiences found so vile, including major plot points, resulting in a truncated version that didn't make sense. The public responded with even more anger and bewilderment. Shortly after it was released, The Rules of the Game was declared "demoralizing" by the government and banned altogether.
To make matters worse, the master negative was destroyed by bombing and the only prints left in existence after the war were of the hopelessly butchered, shortened version. A glimmer of Renoir's genius was visible nonetheless, and interest slowly built in reconstructing the original. A batch of out-takes was discovered and after two years of editing with Renoir's help, a restored version of The Rules of the Game, with only one or two variations from the original, was released in 1959. It was instantly hailed as a classic and is generally ranked as one of the top ten films of all time. It's said that when one of the original crew members saw it, he wept at the sight of it restored.
Jean Renoir was the son of the impressionist painter Auguste Renoir and his films show the same pure delight in life and light as his father's paintings. The Rules of the Game is his most pessimistic work, but it still has the warmth and humanity that are a hallmark of all his films. The story concerns three love triangles--two among masters and one among servants.
Upstairs is the Marquis de la Chesnaye, a self-involved but good-hearted man who's so out of it that his only real passion is collecting mechanical birds. He's having an affair with a vapid society girl; meanwhile, his wife is being courted by an aviator who makes a solo flight across the Atlantic to get her attention. The romantic intrigue upstairs is mirrored by similar problems among the servants downstairs. Everyone converges on the Marquis' country house to do what the rich like to do: play games. They play cards, they hunt, they have parties and put on skits--all of life is a game. They're so engrossed with frivolity and masquerade that when the moment inevitably arrives for them to take off their masks, no one knows what to do with themselves. "It's a world where everyone lies," says Octave, a bumbling fool and the only character with any perspective, a role Renoir played himself.
Renoir pioneered the use of deep-focus photography, a method of filmmaking that allowed actors to be seen in relationship to each other and their surroundings without cutting back and forth. So modest and transparent is this technique that The Rules of the Game has an almost documentary-like feel. There aren't a lot of close-ups and people are often shown in groups. This made it easier for the actors to improvise, and the sense of realism and spontaneity Renoir achieved is nothing short of miraculous. There's almost no sense of artifice--these don't seem to be characters in a movie but actual people living their lives. Julien Carette is especially delightful as Marceau, the rabbit poacher who's always wanted to be a servant because he loves the clothes.
If all this hardly seems "demoralizing" by today's standards, keep in mind that Renoir felt obliged to include a disclaimer that read: "This film is intended as entertainment, not as social criticism." Surely he was stretching the truth a little bit. The Rules of the Game was originally conceived as a critique of fascism in the guise of a light comedy, and while the finished film rises above simple polemics, Renoir certainly manages to criticize a slew of social conditions, including the indolence of the rich and the casual cruelty of men. The hunting scene is especially chilling.
This weekend is your big chance to see this classic at the Screening Room as part of the Émigré Filmmakers series. Though the plot of The Rules of the Game may sound melodramatic, it's the details, the kindness Renoir shows his characters and the generosity between them, that makes it so astonishing. Like all great works of art, it's subtle and complex and impossible to describe. You just have to see it. It's a goddamn masterpiece, for chrissakes.
The Rules of the Game is playing at The Screening Room (622-2262).
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