Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #15: The Rules of the Game

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

The Art House is getting an (extreme) makeover! I'm tired of the old format (or lack thereof), so I'm shaking things up: instead of just writing a traditional long-form review, I'm gonna split my pieces into subheadings, a la my fellow blogger Chris Holden.

In terms of formulating the headings themselves, I tried to think about the purpose behind my writing these pieces. After thinking for a few hours and failing to come up with anything other than "to listen to the sound of my own voice," I decided to focus on why you, the reader, should be reading these pieces. What information do you want to know about these weirdo movies full of funny-talkin' foreigners?

I thought about that for a while longer, and after again failing to come up with anything, I just made up some shit. Enjoy.

The Rules of the Game (1939; dir. Jean Renoir)

Why it's important: Along with his own Grand Illusion and the works of Jean Vigo and Marcel Carné, Renoir's La Règle du jeu is considered one of the founding documents of the poetic realist movement. It was also banned by the French government for presenting the French people in an unflattering light and vilified by French aristocrats for so bitingly satirizing them. It's also considered, like, the best movie ever.

Why it deserves to be called a "classic": This is just a straight-up wonderful movie. Renoir creates some of the most thematically dense films I've ever seen, and this is no exception. In the course of 106 minutes, Renoir touches on the difficulties of fame, the toils of romance vs. the goods of friendship, the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy explored in the show of the same name, the morality of hunting for sport, and, of course, carelessness and amorality of aristocracy, as well as a bunch of other themes I'm probably too dense to notice.

Lest you think Renoir bites off more than he can chew, he choreographs the proceedings with aplomb, creating a film that's eminently watchable scene-to-scene and yet packs a wallop of a message as a whole. On its surface, Rules is a film about a weekend retreat to La Colinière, the country estate of Robert (Marcel Dalio) and Christine (Nora Gregor) de la Chesnaye. The two very clearly love one another, but they can't seem to pull off the fidelity thing. Christine has some kind of relationship with dashing pilot André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), and Robert's been seeing his mistress Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély) since before he married Christine.

She's just gonna boil your rabbit.
The love polygon extends itself to include Octave (Renoir) and a smattering of foppish La Colinière attendees. The various relationships are, to be clear, completely fucking ridiculous. At various points in the film, Christine pledges her love for no less than three people and has liaisons of some kind with four. Christine takes the cake numbers-wise, but the rest of the movie's characters aren't far behind in terms of silliness. The men and women of Rules of the Game are a bunch of adulterous, insufferably bourgeois children. When blood is actually shed near the end of the film, the partygoers think it's just one more part of the show. Renoir pulls off a neat trick by making us identify with their silly interpersonal struggles while despising their overall unseriousness and sycophantism.

At the time, Renoir referred to his film as a war film, even though nothing resembling war is ever presented. It's not so much a war film as a depiction of outright slaughter. The enemy is decency, and it never stands a chance.

Why it might not be a classic: Nope. It is.

Why you might not "get" it: The Rules of the Game presents some thoroughly silly people. If you don't know that Renoir hates these people, you might not be able to stand the film. You also need to be fairly attuned to the subtleties of filmic framing to pick up on the brilliance of Renoir's cinematography: there are frames inside of frames inside of frames in this baby. Keep your eyes peeled.

Further exploration would entail:* The rest of Renoir's filmography; poetic realism as a genre; the films that explore the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy briefly touched upon in Rules: Gosford Park, Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey (seriously watch Downton Abbey right now; it's on Netflix Instant)

The line you'd hum if you could hum movie lines: "That's the awful thing about life: everyone has their reasons." - Octave

Next Week - Marco Bellocchio's Fists in the Pocket

*Yeah, I'm just stealing this wholesale from Chris.