Tonight the Whitney Cinema Series kicked off the new semester with a showing of Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game to a packed, appreciative house. It was good to see classic cinema pack 'em in. The film is one that I'm a bit ashamed to say I didn't get around to seeing till my 5th decade on earth -- in fact I didn't watch it till after the Criterion Collection came out with the restored DVD. Viewing a pristine 35mm print was worth it, even if it meant being shunted to the balcony.
The film is a classic for several reasons. It's release "on the eve of World War II" establishes it as a film that chronicles a world of landed gentry, old world bourgeoisie, devoted servants, and the incipient cultural nomads from both above and below stairs that would soon be overwhelmed by the relentless march of modernity. So it's classic as a moment in the history of cinema when it comes of age as the form able to do most effectively what the theater and the novel did for earlier periods: chronicle for the bourgeoisie how the game was being played.
But the film is also classic in the sense of drawing upon classcisism. In his opening remarks, Dudley Andrew asserted that this film was Renoir's effort to go back to an even earlier sensibility, to recall a sense of French dramatic classicism (a servant is named Corneille and delivers what may be the film's funniest line: when the Marquis says "put an end to this farce, Corneille," the able servant replies, "which one, sir?"); what Andrew alluded to is what I would call the ethos of the film: it upholds a sense of human agency as ultimately determined by the ability to play the social game. The sense that all levels of society are akin in their acceptance of given roles and codes and moeurs is the driving idea that, in the classic period, hadn't yet been tested by democratic upheaval. For Renoir to harken back to the clarity of that world as the actual world was about to undergo the closest it would come to utter Götterdammerung is instructive. Much like Proust in the wake of World War I striving to delineate a world the war would change utterly, Renoir is giving us a version of a world that has held on to old privileges while adapting to the slippery ethos of a world in which the ancient verities are no longer iron-clad. As Octave (played memorably by Renoir himself) says, "everyone lies -- the radio, the newspapers -- so why shouldn't we?" In such a world "the game" will ultimately be self-invention, and the older pieties and stabilities -- including marriage, family, love and friendship -- will suffer.
Renoir's achievement in the film is to give all the characters almost equal dignity -- even those who are largely there for laughs, or to be the simple-minded means of destruction (the groundskeeper Schumacher) -- and to make them all likeable figures in a self-evident social milieu. Octave and Marceau, as two wildcards whose actions help to precipitate (albeit somewhat inadvertently) the demise of the world-record aviator, are given more than usual interest by their sympathetic portrayals -- including Renoir/Octave cavorting in a bear costume -- but the character whose performance is most synonymous with the film for me is the actor playing the Marquis. Chaplinesque at times in his diminutive stature and flamboyant gestures and Valentino-like in his eyes and expressions, the marquis has, as the General remarks at the end, "class" -- with all its associations with amour propre, noblesse oblige, savoir faire, and je ne sais quoi -- combined with a sense of cinematic aristocracy, the ability to "play" in a wildly erratic way against type.
Once you learn the name of the game
You can never play enough
--Bryan Ferry, "The Name of the Game" (1987)