Volume 19 | Issue 25 | November 3 - 9, 2006

Renoir's masterpiece, still a few steps ahead


You remember the game. You're alone on a desert island for the rest of your life. You're allowed one book, one play, one poem, one essay, one painting, one piece of music, one ballet, one gourmet dish, etc., etc. … and oh yes, one movie …

For me, that's the easiest category. The one movie that every time out of the box tells us something new in every frame, every line, every flicker of face, of body, of gesture, of voice, every relationship, every exchange, every prop, every mise èn scene, every exterior, every verbal or slapstick irony slapped upon mortal and moral disaster, is a far more terrible game - indeed, it's “The Rules of the Game” (“La regle du jeu”), Jean Renoir's lost-and-found masterpiece that was shot in 1939 in a France, a world, an entire society that was dancing on the edge of a volcano.

It's at Film Forum through November 16 in a new, crystal-clear restored print.

Never saying so by even a hint or a wink or a flatfooted simile, this at first most hated and subsequently most beloved of films foresaw everything in the track of that volcano. Within a year of the picture's booed-off-the-screen first night in Paris, Hitler would be doing his little jig at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and Marcel Dalio, the actor at the center of “La regle du jeu” - as bored, languid Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest, tagged by several among his kitchen staff as “a Yid” whose grandfather was a Rosenthal - would be plastered in mugshot on Nazi posters throughout Occupied France as example of the Typical Ugly Jew.

It is only now, on I don't know what number viewing over the years, that a light goes on for me over the name Rosenthal. Because Lieutenant Rosenthal is the stoic, targeted Jew played by the same Marcel Dalio in another Renoir masterpiece, “La grande illusion,” made in 1937, two years before “Rules of the Game.” Actor Dalio, by the way, not only escaped Hitler's clutches, he was to become the croupier who raises an eyebrow at Rick's good deed in behalf of that young couple from Bulgaria in “Casablanca.” (And Dalio's real-life wife, Madeleine LeBeau, is that sad, gorgeous young woman who, fraternizing with the Germans after Rick has dropped her, defiantly, with tears in her eyes, sings the “Marseillaise” that has sent shivers through movie audiences ever since.)

But let us talk about the Dalio here - Robert de la Cheyniest, that self-indulgent intelligent, fatigué member of the haute bourgeoisie whose every slope of the shoulders, limp posture, resigned gestures, fluid walk, casual articulation, finely expressive features, graceful accommodation to the needs of others - not to mention his cherished collection of antique musical toys plus the huge, ornate Biedermayer jukebox that is his pride and joy - bespeaks ultra-civilization at the end of the line. Just look at the way la Cheyniest wearily throws on his silk scarf before wishing his wife Christine goodbye for the evening and, lying in his teeth to her, ducks into the next room to telephone the mistress who has no higher claim to his loyalty, indeed not as much.

His one fear - or, rather, the one embarrassment he fears - is that he is being cuckolded, that Christine (the cool, sad, Garboesque Nora Gregor, herself a real-life runaway from Nazism) has given her heart, and more, to André Jurieu (Roland Toutain), the young propeller-age aviator who, Lindbergh style, has just soloed across the Atlantic in a small plane in 23 hours. But when that plane lands at Le Bourget to the roars of an enormous crowd, the fair Christine is nowhere in sight. “I'm very unhappy,” Jurieu says to all the world over the microphone that's thrust into his face. “I made this flight all for a woman, and she isn't here.”

That's how “Rules of the Game” opens.

Jurieu is in fact met at Le Bourget by his friend Octave, a great big bear of a man (none other than Jean Renoir, son of the painter Pierre Renoir) who is also good friends with Robert de la Cheyniest; more yet with the Christine, whose conductor father, back in Austria, was one of Octave's heroes; the bear is even something more than friends with Christine's personal maid, the saucy, sexy Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who is married (badly) to stiff, upright Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the gamekeeper at La Coliniere, Cheyniest's imposing chateau in the countryside.

It is there that one more individual - Marceau (Julien Carette), a shrewd little lives-by-his-wits poacher of rabbits - enters the picture. By the time a handful of aristocrats, one of them a ramrod-stiff retired general (Pierre Magnier), complete the house party at La Coliniere, “Rules of the Game” has cut clean across the social spectrum, which is exactly where this luminous film wants to get you.

It is in the accumulation of these guests - including our hero aviator (who has just tried to kill himself en route by driving his car into a ditch), and, in pouring rain, the arrival of tart tense Genevieve de Marras (Mila Parély), the mistress whom Robert would now dump - that dialogue and incongruity spin by so fast, a non-French moviegoer has difficulty - not in keeping up, but in remembering.

Here's one flea-flicker that collapses me, every time:

Fat female guest, being shown to her room by Jackie (Anne Mayen), Christine's teenage niece: “You're studying Chinese, yes?”

Jackie: “No, it's pre-Columbian art.”

Fat lady [on being told again, a few minutes later, that pre-Columbian has to do with early America]: “Oh, Negroes.”
Jackie: “No, Indians.”

Fat lady, giggling: “What a goose I am! Buffalo Bill!”

Midst all this (and much other) inanity, the romances and would-be romances and lusts and blind delusions play out in parallels - or, rather, in intersecting parallels (Einstein would understand) - of the upper classes (Robert and Christine and Robert's mistress), the middle classes (André the aviator, Octave the idler), and the lower classes (Marceau the poacher, Lisette the maid, Schumacher the gamekeeper, who wants his wife to come away and be his wife).

“Leave Madame,” the girl says. “I'd rather die.”

Inanity turns to painful play-acting when Christine, to save Robert's and her own face, goes in front of her assembled guests in labored explanation of how she and André Jurieu are just friends and why she didn't make it to the airport. Right behind her as she puts on this performance, her husband and Octave go through a beautifully ambiguous little performance of their own, in mime.

As for the gamekeeper, he would as soon shoot the poacher as look at him - Marceau's pseudo-sunny “Bonjour, Schumacher!” when caught with a dead rabbit under his jacket is alone worth the price of admission - but Monsieur le Marquis, thrilled that somebody is at last trapping rabbits that have been destroying the greenery of La Coloniere, hires Marceau on the spot. “Besides, I like your face,” Robert de la Chesniest says of this roguish little man of the people, a figure dialectically not unlike Shaw's Alfred Doolittle.

It is Schumacher in his boots and tight jacket and chauffeur's cap who is, so to speak, the stage manager of The Hunt, the weekend's shoot of rabbits and pheasants and quail that is the raison d'être of the house party and the center of this film (likewise, badly imitated, the center of more than one movie by other directors through the years).

The shattering sequence begins with Schumacher and a line of beaters, he in black, they in cloaks that resemble surgical gowns, moving forward militarily through birch trees - one can't help but think of Birkenau - with clickety-clicks and whistles and growls, scaring the game into the open. The ears snap upright on one little rabbit that breaks from cover and runs and runs and runs and runs and - Powwww! - spins head over heels, quivers its last, and is dead. Then the birds start to rain down from the heavens above - Poww! Poww! Poww! Poww! and the slaughter, in the air, on earth, is on.

And Christine, squinting through field glasses at a squirrel in a tree, happens onto the view of her husband Robert giving his angry mistress a kiss. It's a kiss of goodbye, but Christine doesn't know that. And in a famous following scene she will, with brittle aplomb, pretend to the mistress - lie to the mistress - that she, Christine, knew about Robert and Genevieve's three-year affair all along.

But what's one little lie? After all, as Octave will later say to the Christine whom he himself loves, this is a world in which “everyone lies - drug-company prospectuses, governments, the radio, the cinema, newspapers … ” (television not yet having been perfected). It is a truth only matched - outmatched - by Robert's observation to Octave: “The terrible thing about this world is that everybody has his reasons” - a central truth that embraces the chilling ex post facto subtext that even Hitler had his reasons.

The Jean Renoir who knew all this is also the Octave who, in a bulky black bearskin and bear's head, will emcee a wild, brilliantly plotted and photographed evening of Keystone Comedy hugger-mugger, with everyone chasing through the austere chambers of La Coloniere, trying to kill or beat up one another: Schumacher, gun in hand, grimly chasing Marceau who, toting a cocktail tray a la Chaplin, dodges in and out of a floor-full of elegantly dressed gentry at dance; Robert de la Cheyniest knocking André Jurieu ass over teakettle with a whack to the jaw. “You have quite a right hand,” the aviator says. “You're too kind,” says Monsieur le Marquis.

The synthesis of the whole thing, the moment that puts all these layers of social strata under one microscope, has Robert galloping through the premises when a hand reaches out from a potted palm to grab him. It is Marceau, hiding from Schumacher. “Please, Monsieur le Marquis, see if the coast is clear.” The two men get talking - about women. As they talk, Marceau, cigarette drooping from his lips as he dispenses some good advice - “First I make them laugh” - casually reaches up to re-knot the bedraggled bow tie of his employer. C'est ca!

The end of the film is no laughing matter; it is a murder, immediately blanketed by Robert de la Cheyniest informing his guests that the killing “was all a deplorable accident.” Which only proves to the crusty old general that “this de la Cheyniest has class.”

Oh, Octave, oh Jean Renoir, old bear, it is you who has class and has given us a high-water mark of cinema to live by as long as we live.

RULES OF THE GAME (La regle du jeu), 1939. Banned, lost, bombed; elements refound and reconstituted 1959. Directed by Jean Renoir. Written by Jean Renoir and Carl Koch. 106 minutes. In French, with English subtitles. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, (212) 727-8110, November 1-16.

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