Lost in the Movies: Discussing The Rules of the Game

Discussing The Rules of the Game

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

About nine years ago, I saw The Rules of the Game for the first time. It left me completely cold. It wasn't that I disliked it per se, it just did nothing for me. A few years later I saw it again, and it still didn't quite click. Frustrated, feeling that I was missing something but unable to get a grip on exactly what it was, I jumped to my keyboard and left a post on IMDb: "Is this film overrated?"

Fast forward two years, when I saw the film again and returned to update my response. In doing so, I noticed that my question had really struck a chord; five or six pages of very thoughtful responses, pro and con, had resulted from that initial inquiry. Tonight I watched the movie again, in preparation for this series. However, rather than write a conventional review of the film, I decided to re-post highlights from that IMDb thread, since such an interesting discussion emerged.

I am also including, as a postscript, a response written freshly for tonight. However, the bulk of the post belongs to my initial and concluding post, and selections from the replies in between. They make for great reading - feel free to leave your own thoughts on the film below. Thanks to all those participants back in the day. Keep in mind these are just a small sampling of a long and at times contentious conversation; I stuck with the meatiest posts here but a lot of the shorter ones had some great insights too.

And tonight, in December of 2011? My instinctive response is not far off the one above (aside from that bit of bad faith at the end - what a young punk I was! Or maybe just more honest...). I like and admire many aspects of the film, but still find its gargantuan reputation a stumbling block. Reading the essays in the new Criterion edition started to get my hackles up again - the sheer bliss of some of these reactions mystifies me. I still feel like I'm watching a different movie than everyone else.

That said, there's many lovely moments. Among them, the scene amongst the reeds where Renoir and the aviator wander into the frame; the otherwordly mistaken-identity voyeurism of the cuckolded gamekeeper and cuckolding poacher in the end, when they peer in at the lovers through the greenhouse; and perhaps my favorite sequence of all, the delightful "danse macabre," a playful (yet foreboding) aside which is straight out of Melies or Emile Cohn.

Sequences like these make me suspect I'm missing something in not completely falling for the bigger picture. However, they also point to what I feel that bigger picture misses, at least if it's going to give Citizen Kane a run for its money as "the greatest film of all time." Most towering masterpieces mix the two traditions of cinema - the iconic and the documentary (the good old Melies/Lumiere divide). Kane certainly does, with its larger-than-life flourishes and humanistic details.

Rules, despite its harbingers of the war, feels too narrow and small to me, something that would not be a problem if it were just seen as one of many excellent French films from the thirties. However, this slightness becomes an issue given the claims made for the movie - among them, Paul Schrader's that it "has it all." I feel more like Schrader's Taxi Driver collaborator, who said he was baffled by the appeal of the movie in his youth, but went head-over-heels for The River.

Indeed, that's my favorite Renoir too, and French Cancan isn't far behind. Which perhaps contradicts my frustrations with Rules of the Game for not having "more" - after all, aren't those fifties films more uneven and less focused than Rules? Perhaps, but what I can theoretically see in Rules - a rich, lively messiness; a warmth of character; an excitement of discovery - I can experience more directly in The River or French Cancan.

The two greatest sequences in the film - the hunt and the masquerade - do tend to get past my (unconscious) resistance and impress me viscerally. A few words, though, on that hunt: those overpowering, brilliantly photographed deaths are moving, shocking, and beautiful but let's not kid ourselves about what we're watching - basically an animal snuff film. It adds a bit of distasteful hypocrisy to Renoir's satire and pathos - these animals aren't dying because a bunch of wealthy weekenders decided to have a hunting party, they're dying because Renoir (who didn't even want to be present on the set for this sequence) decided to shoot a movie about them dying.

Less troubling in its brilliance is the elaborate romantic roundelay that unfolds for a good half an hour or so at the final party. It's a tour-de-force of lighting, choreography, composition, performance, and camera movement - all without seeming forced or overbearing; the camera and the actors just flow naturally. At times, the action seems graceful, at others raw and unpredictable - who can follow the rules if the game keeps changing?

Nonetheless, when the movie ends, I feel a bit like poor old Octavio, shuffling off and feeling like he missed his opportunity. It's a film I will keep returning to, but not necessarily one I will see the way others do (though when facing the practical challenges of filmmaking the movie's qualities have a way of revealing themselves - see Truffaut's wonderful comment on the movie). As the man said, everyone has their reasons, and I've said mine. What are yours?

Read the whole "Is this film overrated?" conversation here.

Tomorrow: Schindler's List
This morning: Rear Window

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