Sunday, 18 April 2010

La Regle du Jeu (1939)

Synopsis: A load of French poshos get together to go huntin', shootin' and lovin' in pre-war France. Their maids and butlers join in the upstairs/downstairs farce. Alternative title: Whoops, There Goes my Manservant!

My first Renoir and what a great introduction. A film in which the director/camera is the only moral centre. The film places a rather damning magnifying glass on the pre-war French upper classes and their completely amoral behaviour. Rather neatly, their servants reflect their actions and also provide a parallel to the main story.

The structure of the film is such that for the first two acts we are given a fairly fast paced tale of husbands, wives and lovers all mixing it up in Paris. Renoir goes from scene to scene masterfully, with one particular scene melding into the next via a radio broadcast (the airfield to Christine's bedroom) showing how fresh and innovative the director was. This is all to set up a few days shooting in the country, to which all the players are invited.

When we reach the chateau we have the Marquis and his wife Christine, her 'friend' and social sponger/misfit Octave (played by Jean Renoir himself), we have Chrisine's assumed lover (airman Andre), the Marquis' lover Genevieve, Christine's maid Lisette and her husband Schumacher. There are other bit players along the way. The frenetic and jolly atmosphere Renoir creates is brilliant, you really get swept along with the busyness of the scenes, the camera swooping to follow one character out of a room and then going all the way back to focus on some other part of the story. It really never stops.

I realised how many other films that I know of have been influenced by the scenes in the country house, including Louis Malle's Milou en Mai (so many similarities that I will come back to), Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources, Dangerous Liaisons, Gosford Park, White Ribbon and Remains of the Day. All these films have a few central themes in commmon: class warfare and changes in the world order, the relationship between servants and their masters, upper class ennui and lively, chaotic scenes full of energy.

The similarities with Milou en Mai are palpable as soon as you realise you're dealing with a story about major world events affecting the state of society with the parallel of the upper and lower classes, all set in a big French country house. Whereas I think Milou's setting of May '68 has a bit more humour and a few sympathetic characters, La Regle du Jeu has not one character with any moral weight and has the spectre of World War Two hanging over every scene and embuing so many images and story developments with menace.

One of the early scenes in Milou tells us everything. The upper class matriarch is seen in the kitchen listening to the broadcast about the riots in Paris and how many people have been injured or killed. She is crying but as the camera pulls back we see she is chopping onions. She doesn't care a hoot for the revolution but only cares to keep in her cocoon of bourgeois safety in the country.

In parallel, Regle du Jeu has a very strong sense running all the way through of an entire portion of society that only cares about its own petty squabblings and infidelities, completely ignoring the world outside.

The similarities with White Ribbon have to be viewed carefully as Renoir made this film before the Second World War and cannot have foreseen what was to happen. On the other hand, Michael Haneke's visceral White Ribbon, made in 2008, is quite forceful in highlighting how pre First World War German society paved the way for fascism. There's one really telling scene in White Ribbon when the Baroness implores her husband to move from their home in the village (their son has been subjected to torture at the hands of unknown assailants). She has just returned from a restorative holiday with the children and met another man. Her husband asks if she's in love. At that moment, both the Baroness and the viewer realise that the Baron (any many other characters) just DO NOT GET IT. It's their ignorance of how cruel life is for everyone else that is setting up these atrocious events.

When we move on to the shooting scenes, Renoir really steps up a gear to highlight this amorality. The guests all take great pleasure in killing the defenceless animals, with the camera not letting us off by showing several rabbits getting shot and dying horribly. Of course, the whole time we're watching we think of how this slaughter not only echoes that of the First World War but how it is foretelling the bloodshed that's to come. The camera practically flies about during these scenes, dashing after rabbits and pheasant, following the hunting dogs and beaters through the woods. It's an orgy of panic and death and really strips away any niceties and shows these people for what they are - cold blooded sadists.

With the use of the servants, Renoir is able to really bring home the meaning of the title. At so many moments in the film we see servants expressing their wish to be servants or their loyality to their masters - they understand the 'rules of the game' better than anyone - better the devil you know and don't ever question your place in the world - the exact sentiments that allowed the Nazis to rise to power.

The final act, the post shoot party, goes bonkers. The pace and structure goes out the window and rushes us through in real(ish) time the climax to all the games the protagonists have been playing with each other. Each menage a trois ends in violence - the fight between the servants begins downstairs then moves upstairs - an analogy perhaps for how world events will eventually come crashing into every European drawing room.

The dramatic climax of the film has probably the least reprehensible character (the airman) being shot and killed (he is mistaken for the lover of the gamekeeper's wife). As the film ties up here, I was quite shocked at how the other characters just sort of got on with everything as if nothing that important had just happened. These are a bunch of truly disgusting people, who don't even care when a true hero is dispatched.

The only hope in the entire mental clan is a young niece of the Marquis, who we discover has been studying art and civilisation and when questioned by an older relative, is knowledgeable about the world (unlike the rest of them). She falls in love with the airman and is upset when he is killed. So, the only faint ray of hope is the youngest character and she actually is aware of a world outside her window. Probably says a lot about Renoir's view of the world.

Having said all of that, this is actually feels like a 'light' film, which I suppose is where Renoir's genius lies. It is the skill of a great artist to make you enjoy and appreciate something beautiful that also has great intellectual power.

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