(Must drive to Washington DC. As a show of good faith to my faithful reader(s?) I will show what I have written over the past two days about my favorite movie of all time. This is 1000 words out of something that will probably be at least three times as long. Hopefully I can finish this very late tonight without much trouble. Screw you Muses and your slow timetable.)
Watch the movie here.
“No no no no no no no. This La Cheyniest is not bad class. And that’s become rare, my dear Saint-Aubin. Look at me. That’s become rare.”
The last line of Jean Renoir’s 1939 movie, The Rules of the Game, is already layered with ironies that drip from the screen. But the fact that it’s spoken by an old French General who looks like a dead ringer for Marshall Petain - whom one year later would be the fascist dictator of Vichy France and sent more than half-a-million French citizens to their deaths - makes the irony nothing short of cosmic. The old General is just one of some three or four dozen characters whom we feel as though we know intimately by The Rules of the Game’s end. Like the General, some of them speak as few as half-a-dozen lines. Yet that’s all it takes for us to understand everything about them: their backgrounds, their motives, their aspirations.
It’s just one of the many aspects of this film that firmly convinces me that this is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. But over the nine years since I first viewed La Règle du jeu in the American University library, this is the quality which makes me value it most. This movie is humanity portrayed as it is: with every person given a story, everyone’s perspectives forever shifting, everyone’s sympathies forever changing. And just as the characters evolve from minute-to-minute, we can’t help but evolve from watching them.
Within 106 minutes, The Rules of the Game not only contains the whole human experience, but nearly the whole cinematic one as well. It is as farcical as The Marx Brothers, funny as Mel Brooks, cruel as Martin Scorsese, seductive as Howard Hawks, cynical as Billy Wilder, full of symbolism as Bergman, tragic as Kurosawa, precise as Kubrick, politically controversial as Oliver Stone, surreal as David Lynch, relateable as Ozu, and violent as Quentin Tarantino. But humane as only The Rules of the Game can be.
The farce is pitched at a level as fast as anything in Fawlty Towers or Frazier and is all the more impressive because we’re watching three parallel farces play out simultaneously. We see two servants fight over the same female servant at the same time that we watch four masters fight over the woman whom the female servant attends at the same time that we watch a farce which the characters watch onstage. At one particularly feverish point in the movie, the the Lord of the Manor, Marquis de La Cheyniest, tells his butler to “Stop this Farce!”, to which the butler replies “Which one?”
It would be odd to think that the humor of a movie about the French aristocracy is lowbrow, but it really is. The funniest moments in the movie take their cue from comedy no higher-brow than a custard pie fight in The Three Stooges. Take, for example, the scene when the Marquis’s gamekeeper, Schumacher, goes on a shooting spree through the Marquis’s house in an attempt to kill his wife’s new lover. The Marquis’s party guests think that the spree is yet another farce. And then, in the Marquis’s typically understated way, he says, “I’m afraid I have no choice but to dismiss you. It breaks my heart, but I can’t expose my guests to firearms. It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives.” Even when the humor seems highbrow, low comedy lurks beneath the surface. Take that scene towards the beginning when we meet Genevieve, the saucily unstable mistress of the Marquis. The Marquis calls her in the morning, and as she picks up the phone, she is still in her evening gown - entertaining an entire table of men who are still dressed in white ties from the previous evening’s soiree. As a simultaneous commentary on three different situations, she quotes Chamfort to them, “Love, as it exists in society, is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins.”
It is all too easy to be seduced by these characters. Like in Mad Men or The Godfather, we are supposed to be seduced by these people even as we know that there is something repulsive about them. The easy life of good manners and
I can’t help a special fondness for Octave. Played by Renoir himself, Octave is the only character who seems to fully understand the Game’s dynamics. And because of his understanding, is doomed to remain forever apart from its rewards. He is, for me, the greatest of all characters in the greatest of all movies. His fat ugly mug seems ageless and classless - as though poured into his own flesh. And he has all the insight into people which the other characters lack. Yet all his wisdom cannot help him from being the biggest fool in the entire film (perhaps in film itself). He is a character pitched between the upstairs and downstairs: Longing for the woman who’s the master, settling for meaningless flings with her servant. Longing to recapture early dreams of musical greatness, settling for farcical performances in front of friends. Longing for greater understanding between people, settling for being a temporary bridge to provide others with as much as he can of the happiness which he never finds. He is a wastrel unable to make his own living, and he relies on the kindness of his friends to convince himself of the illusion that he can live a good life. And in exchange for their kindness, he draws upon the well of his own sadness to provide them with the entertainment, humor and wisdom which they cannot provide for themselves. From him (from all such people) is provided the engine from which the entire game runs, for good or ill.