Beyond the Multiplex

A restored version of one of the best movies ever made, "Rules of the Game." Plus: A transsexual romance and a "Memento" rip-off.


Andrew O'Hehir
November 2, 2006 6:00PM (UTC)

A lot has been written about Jean Renoir's 1939 film "Rules of the Game." Too much, maybe. For many years it has ranked near the top in critics' lists of the best films ever. In Sight & Sound magazine's most recent critics' poll, it's at No. 3, behind only "Citizen Kane" and "Vertigo." Yet "Rules of the Game" doesn't have much of a popular constituency and never did; it was a horrendous bomb when it opened in Paris in the summer before the Nazi invasion of France, and it doesn't make the top 250 films ranked by IMDb users.

Many digressive topics beckon here, but I'm going to try to resist them: the strange human compulsion to make lists and compare things that, philosophically, ought to be incomparable; the gulf between critical and popular tastes (you're sick of that one, if you've ever read this column before); the fact that contemporary audiences literally have difficulty understanding most films made before the '60s; my own sense of confusion and betrayal every time I see "Vertigo." Those topics are all alluring, but they're liable to make me angry and distracted. The subject of the day is "Rules of the Game," now available in a digitally restored print of amazing clarity that comes as close to Renoir's lost 1939 original as we're ever going to get. You should see it.

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Mind you, "Rules of the Game" can make you angry and distracted too. Like most critics, I fling around words like "masterpiece" and "genius" and "brilliance" too much. They become cheapened, but, more than that, they confer a dusty schoolroom haze on works meant, more often than not, to shock or alarm us, make us laugh or scream, thrill us with the fear of death and awaken us to the cruelty and suffering of our fellow beings. God knows we don't always want that, but if you'll forgive the pompous sentiment, that sort of thing is the Mission of Art.

Renoir's own perspective on the failure of "Rules of the Game" was that he had succeeded in his artistic mission a little too well. In the summer of 1939, Czechoslovakia had already been surrendered to Hitler, who would invade Poland at the end of the summer (and France the following spring). "Rules of the Game" never mentions these events directly. In the film a group of aristocrats and their servants converge on a rural estate to hunt pheasants and rabbits, have a big costume ball, and engage in romantic intrigue. The plot is largely borrowed from Alfred de Musset's 19th century play "Les Caprices de Marianne," a classic French tragicomedy of marital faithlessness and its consequences. Sounds like fun, right?

Well, it is and it isn't. There's a certain amount of wife-swapping, ass-slapping, cuckold-chasing slapstick in "Rules of the Game," but even that is always on the verge of descending into violent chaos. There's a large cast of lovely ladies and chivalrous gentlemen. They make entertaining company, most of the time. They want to make love and have fun, like the rest of us. But they're also a little bored, uncertain about what to do next, not always likable. There's a shocking sequence, only a few minutes long but unforgettable, when the shooting party massacres the rabbits driven out of the woods by "beaters." (It's unmistakably real: The death toll is 12 bunnies, although it feels like 100, and the sequence of shots took two months to complete.)

"Rules of the Game" has no clear central character. Octave, the genial, overweight aristocrat so memorably played by Renoir himself, may come the closest, but he's a self-loathing buffoon unable to seize his own chance at happiness, whose actions are an unstable mixture of nobility and cowardice. There isn't exactly a central event, either; the one that would provide the climax to almost any other treatment of this material -- a man is shot and killed -- is tossed off and hastily covered up, as if it were an irrelevant footnote.

Amid the tense international situation of 1939, you'd think a movie about the adventures of the idle rich and their earthier servants would be just the ticket. But not these idle rich people, or their adventures. "People go to the cinema in the hope of forgetting their everyday problems," Renoir writes in his 1974 autobiography, "and it was precisely their own worries that I plunged them into ... I depicted pleasant, sympathetic characters, but showed them in a society in process of disintegration, so that they were defeated at the outset ... The audience recognized this. The truth is that they recognized themselves."

Even this is perhaps too much interpretation, too much history. But it may be easier to appreciate "Rules of the Game" if you grasp something of its context, and if you understand that the film's tonal confusion, like its refusal to divide its large cast into heroes and villains, cheaters and victims, is deliberate. A certain fanciful subtraction may also be helpful: If you imagine a world where the films of Bergman, Truffaut, Altman, Mike Leigh and Woody Allen (among others) don't yet exist, you can begin to understand the prodigious influence of this movie. (Renoir himself would make many later films, in American exile and then back in France, including some good ones, but never got close to this level again.)

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I think that describing "Rules of the Game" as an angry indictment of the pre-war European class system, as many critics do, is a little misleading. Yes, Renoir himself was a leftist, even a Communist sympathizer (at the time), and of course his ideology played a role in constructing and executing the film. He called it an attack "on the very structure of our society." But the experience of watching the film is not didactic, and it never feels laden with heavy-duty social commentary. Renoir directs our sympathy, and also our contempt, at both the Marquis de La Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), the betrayed and bewildered husband who hosts the house party at La Colinière, and Marceau (Julien Carette), the obsequious poacher turned incompetent servant.

In the extraordinary deep-focus corridor shots that launched a thousand imitators -- Jean Bachelet's photography, and Renoir's direction, are so far ahead of the 1930s norm (or the norm of any period, really) that I suspect viewers were simply flummoxed -- masters and servants pinball off each other by the dozens, like particles in the atoms that would soon be split, changing the world in a different medium. If the aristocrats seem purposeless and cruel as a group, the servants are no better: They betray each other, engage in vicious gossip, make anti-Semitic cracks about La Chesnaye (Dalio himself was Jewish, a fact well known by French audiences at the time).

As individuals, though, everyone in the film seems redeemable, or potentially so. La Chesnaye himself is a shy, awkward, generous-spirited guy, when he's not playing the roles of philandering husband and coldhearted autocrat. His Austrian wife, Christine (an actual Austrian princess, performing under the name Nora Grégor), is a tender-hearted romantic, semi-consciously tormenting a whole string of would-be lovers. Even the dour Alsatian gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the comic villain who so vividly tries to murder Marceau, is seen weeping in devastation at the perfidy of his wife and the cruelty of his fate. Perhaps only the "heroic" aviator André Jurieu (Roland Toutain), an innocent who can never master the rules of this particular game, is viewed from a distance, through the glass of dramatic irony. He's as doomed as those rabbits.

Like the very greatest artists in all media -- here I go with the meaningless superlatives again -- Renoir was able to transcend his own perspective, his own prejudices, and glimpse something of the terror and wonder of human life, the pain of misapplied or rejected love, for rich as for poor. It would be idiotic to insist that there's no ideology at work in this film, but amid all its switchbacks in tone, its contradictions and paradoxes, the central ethic of "Rules of the Game" is expressed by Renoir himself, as Octave. It's one of the most quoted lines in movie history, but it's worth another iteration. "You see, in this world there is one awful thing," he says, "and that is that everyone has his reasons."

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The new, digitally restored 35mm print of "Rules of the Game" is now playing at Film Forum in New York, with a national rollout to follow. There is also a restored version available on DVD from Criterion Collection, but the new print is of superior quality.

"Soap": The woman upstairs meets the "woman" downstairs
That's a hard act to follow, but I'm here to offer a strong endorsement for the Danish film "Soap," latest in a parade of gender-bender romantic comedies from the current generation of European directors. (If Renoir were still with us, he'd apparently be making movies about transsexuals.) Pernille Fischer Christensen's directing debut has some postmodern touches that don't seem strictly necessary -- an old-style soap opera narrator intervenes, here and there, to provide some tongue-in-cheek commentary -- but it also has an agreeable, bristly meanness.

Shot in a mid-downscale Copenhagen apartment complex, "Soap" never tries to be ingratiating. Its central character, Charlotte (Trine Dyrholm), is appealing without really being likable. She's sexy, in a disheveled, edge-of-middle-age way, and greets the world with an amused, confrontational, almost masculine gaze. Charlotte has dumped her abusive but undeniably handsome doctor boyfriend, Kristian (Frank Thiel), for a life of random sex with guys she doesn't even like and an increasingly odd relationship with her downstairs neighbor.

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This neighbor is Veronica (David Dencik), a thoroughly awkward pre-op transsexual who makes a living by entertaining male visitors in a variety of interesting (mostly S/M-related) scenarios. Veronica's mother (Elsebeth Steentoft) shows up unannounced, sometimes at highly inconvenient moments, with packages of pâté and unsolicited advice. She still calls Veronica "Ulrik," to his/her immense displeasure. From the moment Charlotte lays eyes on Veronica, she seems curious, intrigued, possibly titillated. But for almost all of the film, her interest mostly seems cruel (to both of them). Of course they get off on the wrong foot; that's the classic formula. More than that, they seem to hate and fear each other.

I don't know if Christensen, finally, can sell us Charlotte and Veronica as plausible lovers. But she did convince me, anyway, that their mutual dislike and distrust conceals a visceral attraction. Charlotte is definitely a straight woman, and Veronica is either a gay man or a straight woman, or more accurately a transitional figure partway between them. They're both scared to come to grips with each other as individuals, separated from those identity labels. If Christensen's conventional plot is somewhat at odds with her downbeat realism, the idea that these characters are willing to fight like cats and dogs, and destroy each other and themselves, to avoid confronting their intense attraction to each other is totally convincing.

"Soap" opens Nov. 3 at the Quad Cinema in New York, Dec. 8 in Los Angeles, Dec. 22 in San Francisco, and Jan. 5 in Portland, Ore., with more cities to follow.

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Fast forward: "Memento" plus the first scene of "Reservoir Dogs" equals an "Unknown" quotient; back to the land with "Commune"
I have a soft spot for Simon Brand's formulaic, claustrophobic and intermittently effective thriller "Unknown," I guess because it reminds me of the kind of movie my high-school friends would have seen on Saturday night in the long-gone downtown grindhouses of Oakland, Calif. It's a heist film and a puzzle film. It deliberately and obviously rips off "Memento" and "Reservoir Dogs." I've heard this kind of thing called a "bowling-league" movie, as in, you could start a bowling league of lowlifes with all these disreputable characters.

A bunch of guys wake up on the floor of a filthy warehouse, somewhere in the Arizona desert. They don't remember how they got there, or even who they are. See, they were all fighting and a canister of some kind of gas broke open -- you know, the kind that leads to unconsciousness and short-term memory loss but few other obvious effects -- and here they are. Even in the movie's credits, they're all identified by attributes rather than names: Jean Jacket (Jim Caviezel), Broken Nose (Greg Kinnear), Bound Man (Joe Pantoliano), Rancher Shirt (Barry Pepper).

Caviezel's character is the first one to wake up and provide us with some really bad tough-dude method acting, but the others soon follow. There are angry confrontations, fights, bouts of vomiting, but they still don't remember who the hell they are. There are clues: a phone call, a newspaper article. It seems like some of them are kidnappers and some of them are the victims, and the whole thing went south somehow, even before the mysterious gas and the shooting that left Handcuffed Man (Jeremy Sisto) hanging from a railing and bleeding out from a bullet wound.

Their memories come back in incoherent flashed-back bits and pieces, of course, and we begin to see how the kidnapping has unfolded in the outside world, where a ransom is being paid and the cops are on the trail. But once the paranoid surrealism of the opening scenes begins to fade, so does the film's inherent interest level. The plot twists and secrets that arrive late are pretty cheap, but effective enough. Jean Jacket actually gets all these deadbeats to work together for a cause and whistle the theme of Beethoven's "To Joy" (I kid you not), but is he really an upstanding guy or a complete sleazeball? Will he ever know for sure? Do we care? This is being jointly released by the Weinstein Co. and IFC, but neither of them bothers to list "Unknown" on its Web site. Don't you feel sorry for it? (Opens Nov. 3 at the IFC Center in New York. Other cities may follow. Also available pay-per-view on some cable TV systems.)

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You may well decide that the back-to-the-land hippies who founded the Black Bear Ranch in the late '60s, deep in the remote forests of Siskiyou County, Calif., were nuts. But, at least in Jonathan Berman's film "Commune," there's no disputing their courage. Furthermore, in documenting how three generations have been raised about as far off the grid of mainstream society as you can get without disappearing, Berman captures a way of life that has been curiously influential -- has been imitated, ripped off, ridiculed and demonized -- ever since.

As actor Peter Coyote, an occasional visitor and short-time resident, observes, Black Bear was the last of a series of communal living experiments that stretched from San Francisco northward, almost to the Oregon border. It may also have been the most intense. At the end of a nine-mile dirt road, difficult to traverse in summer and impossible in winter, Black Bear attracted the most dedicated and ideological communalists, and sometimes the weirdest ones.

Berman has assembled an extraordinary collage of Black Bear home movies and personal testimony to document the commune's highs and lows. It's not an idealized portrait; many survivors look back on Black Bear's ethic of near-totalitarian togetherness with regret. (At least for a while, residents couldn't sleep with the same person more than two nights running. Otherwise, they might become a couple, which was of course a bad thing.) During the darkest years, Black Bear was invaded by a cultlike child-rearing cluster called Shiva Lila, who separated children from their parents and took them to the Philippines and India, where some died of diphtheria.

By the same token, the people who survived Black Bear and came back to society seem no better or worse than the rest of us, and the sheer hardships of the place meant that many of them learned practical skills -- cooking, cabinetmaking, herbal medicine -- that have turned into useful and lucrative careers. Most former residents view each other with tremendous (and sometimes guarded) affection, and continue to look back on Black Bear as a life-defining experience. Amid the dozens of documentaries made about various aspects of '60s society and culture, "Commune" stands out for its ambiguity, honesty and sheer human clarity. (Opens Nov. 3 at Cinema Village in New York, with more cities to follow.)

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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