March 2016 Blindspot: The Rules of the Game

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The Blindspot Series is a series of twelve posts spread throughout the year designed to offer bloggers a chance to catch up classic films we somehow may have missed. Started by The Matinee, here is my list of Blindspot films for 2016. Though I missed February, I’m back in March with Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.

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I feel as if it’s impossible to intake the entirety of the Great Film that is Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game on the first viewing. It’s number four on the most recent Sight and Sound poll, and indeed, the only things I knew about it were how Great it was and that it was saying something about French society. I get impressions of that here on the first viewing, but can’t fully grasp it in its totality.

I did actually know one more thing about it. It apparently was a great influence on Robert Altman, which is why out of my 11 remaining blindspots I chose to watch it now (while I was taking my class). This was actually my easiest entry point into the film; being able to relate it to something more familiar and contemporary. I’m not a complete stranger to the year 1939 (a high water mark year for American film as well), but I don’t really know much about French society, at least not specific to this time. However, it actually turns out being more familiar in this respect than you’d think. It’s best described as one of those comedies with rich people who have nothing better to do than head off to their country estate and have affairs with each other. Like many of Altman’s films, it includes a large ensemble cast and (though there are no zooms) uses the camera in interesting ways to focus on specific characters in a crowd.

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It all starts when famous aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutaint) returns home from a transatlantic flight and is disappointed that his lover Christine (Nora Gregor) is not there to greet him. His friend Octave (Jean Renoir), who seems to be their go-between consoles him, then goes to Christine’s to convince her to see Jurieux. Then Octave flirts with her maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost) who seems to stay in Christine’s employ mainly to avoid her jealous husband, Schumacher (Gaston Modot). That becomes somewhat of a problem when it’s decided that they will all go to Christine’s husband’s (Robert, played by Marcel Dalio) country estate, Jurieux and Robert’s mistress Genevieve (Mila Parely) as well. They all end up breaking off certain affairs, starting others, and generally making a mess of everyone’s love lives.

This mess becomes far more messy as the film continues. In reading about this film after I saw it, I kept seeing how important the mirroring and repeating of similar situations is to this film, something I only sort of noticed on my watch of it. The upper class and the lower class mirror each other in that they both have similar struggles being played out in a slightly different settings. It’s not a direct one to one correlation, but it’s similar all the same. My favorite example of this though is mirroring of the big hunt scene, in which you tragically see a lot of rabbits, birds, and even a cat, being shot for sport, with crazed lovers chasing each other around the huge mansion and its grounds. Suffice to say it’s all fun and games until…. well, you know.

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To me, this just says volumes about buying into frivolous emotions and playing them out as if they were life and death. It’s no coincidence that most of the characters are rich or work for rich people; they don’t seem to have anything better to do than convince themselves they are or are not in love with each other and then violently play it out. For instance, Christine proclaims her love for at least three different men in the film, and changes her mind back at least twice. I don’t know whether it’s a matter of her having real feelings for all of these different people and just not being introspective enough to figure it out, or whether they are all just frivolous and she’s bored, but whichever one it is Renoir seems to be warning against that danger.

Imdb lists four cinematographers on the film, Jean-Paul Alphen, Jean Bachelet, Jacques Lemare, and Alain Renoir. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before in my life! Anyway, what’s remarkable about the cinematography here is not only the incredibly long takes and constant camera movement, but also that they were able to reach this level of sophistication in ’39. They do a lot of what Altman does in some of his films, but he generally uses some kind of zoom or combines a dolly and a zoom; they’re all dollies here (unless I’m mistaken zooms weren’t really a thing back then). So you’ll start out kind of wide, seeing everything, then dolly over to one or two characters having an interaction, then because the scenes usually have so many people in them, you can dolly over to another group of characters. Though you can see a few bumps, it’s great how seamless this all is.

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They also do great things with deep-focus cinematography when they are not doing complex dolly moves that I (too generally) described above. They will often have characters looming the background, separating two characters in the foreground to show the constant two-timing that goes on between all of them. It happened at least twice in the film that I can remember, and it’s a straightforward yet effective way to get this point across visually.

The more I think about it, the better The Rules of the Game gets. Not only was the cinematography incredibly engaging, the themes of the film important, but the dialogue was spot-on as well. Performance-wise, I especially enjoyed Renoir himself as Octave, a sweet sort of bumbling character, who unlike the rest of them, is surprised into the chance to act out his romantic feelings. Though I still feel as if I’m missing some things, I really really like The Rules of the Game. It’s a film I don’t quite love yet, but could definitely see myself loving in the rewatches to come. I rate it based on this expectation.

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“It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives.”

Long story short: 4/4

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review
Criterion Collection essay
The New York Times review (from 1961, I can’t tell if it’s favorable or not!)

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2 responses to “March 2016 Blindspot: The Rules of the Game

  1. Nice review. I really ought to see The Rules of the Game again; it didn’t quite connect with me when I saw it a couple years back, but I didn’t know much about the film’s background at the time, which would have helped my appreciation of the picture.

    • Definitely I felt that way before starting to write this review and before I started to read up on it; I really want to see it again in a few months and see how much better it works now that I know what to expect. I really would recommend revisiting it, though I can definitely see why I wouldn’t 100% connect with someone on a first viewing.

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