Dir. Jean Renoir

A few months back I had the chance to pick up La Grande Illusion, a film by a filmmaker I had heard much about but never seen outside of a still or two. A lucky used find — then again I’m always happy when I come across Criteirion films used — and a film well worthy of the attention heaped on it, as I talked about briefly here. So having heard about The Rules of the Game I trusted I would somehow find a copy somewhere along the line…and once again stumbled across a used Criteirion copy. I salute the factor of luck.

And so the film, and once again I think the praise is quite well justified. Goodness, it’s poetry in motion at many points, it just simply flows without pause at many times. Without having known his other thirties work aside from La Grande Illusion, it’s hard for me to say how much of a new or striking development this is in his efforts, but given the readily familiar farcical trappings of the plot and house — Plautus could have viewed this and gone, “Oh yeah, right, nice twist on the form there, I approve, now is the new Greek wine in?” — keeping the camera moving just so, his actors engaged in a perfect ballet across the majesterial main rooms, the editing not allowing for a breath at points, all denotes an ability to push the medium until it works just so. Busby Berkeley choreography shot at eye level.

How intentional, I wonder, is the fact that it’s so easy to be seduced by the sheer play at play in the setting and among the characters, though? It’s interesting in that it’s a film consciously created by Renoir to be a sharp critique of a mindset and a class (but notably not sparing those on the other side of the upstairs/downstairs divide, where there is venality, bigotry and more in equal abundance as much as there is sudden humor and joy — not to mention shrugging resignation, but often conveyed in quick looks rather than explanations, a handy economy). And yet for all the Decameron-like nature of the houseguests and their hosts, escaping from a threat never discussed on screen and of course not truly and fully capable of being imagined by anyone quite yet, it’s so easy not to pity them or sympathize with them necessarily but to let them get on with it for a watcher’s amusement. By all means let them drink too much or talk about honor and duels and get involved in fights and spy on each other and delivered open or veiled emotional threats or twist the meaning of words from one set of conventions to another as the situation demands it. If Marquis de la Chesnaye loves the mechanical creations he buys and sets to playing, I love the one I’ve purchased here, their movements always preset.

And thus the tragedy concluding the film is actually less tragic than all that — which may be cold but it also reflects a weakness in the film, namely that the character of Jurieux is a cipher, actually probably the least complicated of the main characters. Renoir’s point that he does not play by ‘the rules’ is clear, perhaps, but even more so than the various objects or foci of desire in a Hitchcock plot, Jurieux is ultimately a Macguffin, talked about and analyzed and debated but rarely ever speaking for himself outside of cliches of love and honor. In respects it’s what the character demands, and he’s actually played very well by Roland Toutain, in that I don’t think the character has much thought of anything else in his head beyond these points. I’m not sure whether Renoir means for him to be sympathetic or not, in the end — he is the fly in the ointment, to be sure, and he is expected by everyone else to follow one set role or another, and on that level one wants to connect with him, for who wants to be so boxed in? And yet in turn he seems an automaton bereft of reflection, at least on first blush — there’s no there there, and if other characters want to wind him up and watch him move to a preset tune, he seems just as capable of doing that to himself.

In comparison most everyone else of the major characters is a partially or fully collapsing mess, either fighting to hold it in or just finally letting it go after everything builds up. Human, all too human, and while they can be condemned for their wastrel behavior and their frittering away of time and treasure, or else seen as supporting that through their choice of actions, damned if I can’t immediately find moments of identification throughout. Whether it’s obsession with hobbies, unsureness of what another person really wants, unsureness of what oneself wants, pathetic drunken self-laceration, endless worrying and doubts…the list goes on. In an era then as now where political follies and economic concerns and more almost constantly require thinking more outside oneself, the sheer comfort to be found in withdrawal and self-regard is frankly quite frighteningly understandable. Solipsism and reducing everything down to what’s going on with your own life and those you interact with isn’t dangerous because it cuts out the world, it’s dangerous because it’s so very, very cozy — and how many characters in the film ponder escape or breaking free or somehow going away and how many of them do not? I suspect they are all content to scratch a particular itch, and that it is better the devil they know.

Perhaps Renoir’s own moment of comfortable discomfort comes with the shooting scene halfway through. I instantly suspected that he must have absolutely despised blood sports, something confirmed in the essay booklet that came with the disc. And yet, of course, we see vast numbers of rabbits and pheasants killed quite openly and graphically on camera, those were hardly stunt animals watched over by the ASPCA (or its French equivalent, more accurately). It’s not clear whether Renoir directed that sequence himself, I suspect he got someone else to do it, but he had to balance off his own scruples and morals with a belief that it was important to show. Decades on and it’s perhaps telling that I feel so uneasy about what is essentially a non-human snuff film sequence (even more telling that after all I am no vegetarian and can hardly claim to be truly morally offended through and through). Perhaps this was the kind of thing Renoir felt about how his initial audience reacted so poorly to the film, that they didn’t want to confront something or some things in the film, but presumably he had to do the same. An interesting depiction of a moral choice from outside the film’s self-contained universe, at the least, and part of the reason why I think this film will readily bear rewatching.