Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius are using the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the greatest movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they celebrate the anti-war film that came right before war and successfully caused a riot with satire alone. What rules for life can we learn from Jean Renoir‘s The Rules of the Game?
Landon: So…what’s your take on Gosford Park–err….The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois–um…The Rules of the Game, that’s it! What should we take away from it?
Cole: You’ve said a lot right there. With this movie more than most, it’s tempting to talk about it solely in the context of why it’s so highly praised. It’s a stunning work, but it’s similar to a lot of other films. To avoid a pointless question about “being overrated,” I have a better one: what sets this movie apart from others like it?
Landon: Do you mean, in part, with so many movies about the affairs of rich people, why should I care about these rich people?
Landon: This might be the first movie on the S&S list that asks us not to care much or be too invested in the story being presented. Don’t get me wrong, the battle of egos and misunderstandings in The Rules of the Game is involving and often hilarious, and Renoir captures all these events with unique camerawork impeccably.
Landon: But I never get the sense that were asked to care about these characters. It seems that making a movie about the wealthy was a statement in of itself in France in 1939.
Cole: Because they’re all so allegorical?
Landon: Yes. It’s a satire about the isolated, self-infatuated logic of the upper class. They’re too preoccupied with the meaningless interrelations going on inside the mansion to care about or understand the incredible and horrifying changes happening outside. Robert’s big, silly musical toy is perfectly illustrative of this.
Cole: But by the very nature of making them the focus, we’re typically asked to care about the people we’re seeing. You’re saying Renoir is not asking us to, specifically as aid to his satirical point about their obliviousness and whimsy?
Landon: Well, their obliviousness and whimsy are not the film’s only satirical bent. It’s the joy of watching the movie. The humor works and the stakes escalate because these characters have a habit of making mountains from molehills or creating problems where none exist otherwise.
So I don’t think the film’s context is required for it to work, but I do think that the context highlights the “stakes” of making a screwball comedy at this time.
Cole: And yet, the movie almost seems overshadowed by things beyond itself – most notably that chairs were thrown at a violence-inducing first screening in 1939.
Which is hard to understand. It’s a bit like imagining people smashing their TVs with croquet mallets when Downton Abbey comes on.
Landon: Any movie that causes French people to throw chairs is a top 10 in my book.
But what if something like this film were made today, in the context of American income inequality? We’re living in wartime and not impending wartime, but I can think of a few who would be offended this type of portrayal of the privileged class.
Cole: Well, now there’s an elephant in the room. Specifically this film’s relation to others on the S&S list. For one, Renoir looks like Alfred Hitchcock’s cousin, but more than that, his movie is also a stunning take down of wealth ala Citizen Kane and a story (indirectly) about human suffering ala everything else in the top 50.
Landon: Good connection. But unlike the others, Rules of the Game doesn’t necessarily telegraph what it’s about. In some ways the film’s import is about what’s not seen rather than what is. Ironic given that Renoir’s visual style was about seeing everything at once.
But maybe we should start investigating the themes of the film itself. Does anything stick out to you?
Cole: This may sound odd, but the idea of “disappointment.” It opens with Andre landing at the airport not to the open arms of his lady love…but to disappointment. She’s didn’t come to meet him.
Landon: And Jean Renoir wanders around, disappointed no one will help him out of the bear suit. I think we can all relate to that. Literally or metaphorically.
Then there’s Edouard, disappointed that his lover falls for the poacher.
Cole: Well, it’s a telling start to a movie with many moments where character’s are disappointed (even if they are happy moments later). It’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with all of its romantic entanglements and false identities. Except instead of turning into a donkey, Renoir puts on a bear suit.
Landon: I really do think the bear suit symbolizes any interpretation of this movie. Where do you think the disappointment arises from? Are these characters projecting something on to one another that isn’t there, or that they can’t possibly live up to?
Cole: It’s simple, really. And like you mentioned earlier, it’s something that isn’t special or unique to this group. It’s really a matter of expectations versus reality – although if I wanted to, I could see that as meaningful in and of itself when it comes to class warfare.
Landon: I like that. There’s something to key into this film that’s universal, even if it’s especially applicable to these particular characters. Comedies usually don’t get as much love as dramas in critical circles or lists like these. The first three films we discussed were dramas. Why might this one stand out?
Cole: Perhaps because it’s satire. Perhaps because it’s Renoir that made it – a man who already had a reputation for strong filmic statements of class.
Why do you think it does?
Landon: I think it’s interesting that Grand Illusion – one of my favorite films ever made, and a film that’s just as celebrated, especially in its 75th anniversary re-release this year – isn’t in this spot instead. I think it’s the greatest anti-war film ever made. And though it’s not didactic, it’s a film that makes a statement, and it’s arguably prophetic about what would come.
It says something to make Rules of the Game after a WWI film with contemporary themes in late 1930s France.
Cole: That’s another similarity with films on the list. Many would say that Vertigo isn’t Hitchcock’s best and that Kane isn’t Welles’ best. Or, hell, that Tokyo Story isn’t Ozu’s best.
Landon: That raises the question: why this one, or how is it representative of their greater careers?
Cole: That’s it right there. The idea that these movies, while maybe not their best, are somehow indicative of their entire careers. Since we can’t get everything from these titans into a finite Top Ten, we have to find something that we all agree is a universal stand in, and it seems like Rules of the Game is it for Renoir – a summation of his themes.
Landon: What I love about Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game is that their titles could have been switched and they’d work just as well. The former is about the rules of war, the second about the illusion that one’s problems are important.
Cole: Wow. I’d never thought about that, but it’s dead right. They could probably both be called The Human Beast pretty easily. Maybe Renoir just had poetically generic titles at his beckon call.
Landon: Human Beast 2 is on SyFy soon.
Cole: One last question: what are the rules of the game? Or, the number one rule at least.
Landon: I guess I think of the movie more in terms of the “game” part. The “rules” no one seems to abide by, or else people wouldn’t have gotten shot (except rabbits). I answer the question instead with a quote from Robert Altman: “I learned the rules of the game from The Rules of the Game.”
Cole: So it’s something every director should study, but I have a different number one rule in mind.
Landon: What’s that?
Cole: “If you pretend bad shit’s not happening, it makes it easier to be in the upper class.”
Even after the final scene, here are characters who consistently deny the bad parts of life, glossing over them in favor of shiny exteriors.
Landon: That sounds exactly right. If you’re insulated, there is no greater example of human suffering and injustice than a man trapped in a bear suit.
Cole: Aren’t we all that man in that bear suit? Aren’t…..we all?