Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sitting in judgment (Le Regle du jeu)

Looks like I really am going to kick off SUMMER SCHOOL here with something very much respectable enough for a proper classroom: Jean Renoir’s Le Règle du jeu (or in English, The Rules of the Game). This is one of the 1001 Movies that the Blog Club has not gotten around to yet, and it’s also in the top five of the Sight & Sound 50. I have various little sub-goals within the (impossibly) larger 1001 Movies quest to broaden my cinematic knowledge, and the S&S top five is one of them; now that I’ve seen Le Règle du jeu, as well as Vertigo, Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story, I’ve only got one more to go. Progress!

But, to the film at hand. One of the (many) oddities of the way that my brain works is that I’m frequently imagining ways in which other people’s perceptions might be diametrically opposed to mine. If I’m enjoying something, I’m simultaneously thinking of what obstacles it might present to others’ enjoyment (or vice versa). And then, whenever possible, I’m thinking of counter-arguments of my own and the personal reasons why, for all that I might understand, I don’t necessarily agree. Le Règle du jeu lends itself to that kind of back and forth, which may very well be part of the authorial intent, as well.

I appreciated why Le Règle du jeu is esteemed so highly among cinephiles, and I enjoyed it as entertainment as well. But from a very early point in the story, I could predict what many people might find problematic about it: the absence of appealing characters. First we meet a young pilot who is hailed as a hero for his solo trans-Atlantic flight, but he immediately squanders goodwill with a petulant outburst to a radio reporter, aimed at the woman he loves for her failure to meet him at the landing airfield. Then we cut to the woman in question, and learn that the reason (or one reason) she did not meet the pilot is because she is married to someone else. Then we meet her husband the Marquis, and soon learn he has a mistress, although he is recently resolved to end the affair in order to be worthy of his wife, although he has no intention of being honest with his wife about the past, and also apparently has no remorse about the emotional pain the end of the affair will cause his mistress. And so on and so on, with more and more characters introduced, including the pilot’s best friend (played by Renoir himself) who happens to be a childhood friend of the otherwise-married woman he pines for, and the married woman’s self-interested maid and her brute of a husband and the skeevy poacher whom the Marquis hires as a domestic, and various other upper crust types and servants who all come together for a weekend in the country featuring a hunt and a grand party.

Some people believe that the worth of any story, be it a movie or a novel or even a reality tv series, lives and dies by how sympathetic and/or likable (not always the same thing) the characters are. As the thinking goes, first we must care about the characters, and only then will we care what happens to the characters, which gives us a reason to keep watching or reading so that we can see for ourselves as the narrative unfolds. If characters are completely venal and unlikable, and if their problems are the kinds of troubles most people long to have (too many suitors, too much money and idle time, &c.) and therefore unsympathetic, then the story gives the audience no reason to engage with it, and leads inexorably to “Why am I watching this?” style reactions.

I can’t really argue the point that the characters in Le Règle du jeu have any redeeming qualities, but I found the story compelling nonetheless. It’s fascinating to watch the chain of human misery forged link by link, relationship by relationship, as Renoir introduces all of the players. Then he brings them all together and the story builds momentum, as individuals collide and recombine or rebound from one another at the Marquis’s estate, and the pace never really lets up, until it becomes an out-and-out farce with people running from room to room looking for (or hiding from) other people, including one man actively trying to murder another with a real gun, which most of the other party guests mistake for a droll pantomime amusement being staged for their own benefit.

Another critical question, along the lines of “Do characters have to be likable?”, is “Do satires have to be funny?” Because Le Règle du jeu is fundamentally a satire, albeit a modulated one. There is very little if any exaggeration for comic effect in the film; it simply aims the lens at fictionalized aristocrats and holds their world and worldviews up for well-deserved ridicule. And if something is worthy of being ridiculed, it may not be particularly appealing to begin with. It also may or may not be humorous, and may instead be pathetic or sorrowful (which is in fact how I would describe the closing section of the movie, after the high-energy farce has spent itself and finished winding down like one of the Marquis’s mechanical music boxes).

Likability isn’t the point and laughs aren’t the point, either, if I may be so bold as to speak for Monsieur Renoir. The point is a critique and an indictment, framed in such a way as to invite the audience to come to their own conclusions. There is little to no comeuppance for any of the characters in Le Règle du jeu (with the exception of the pilot’s tragic death), and they are not punished for their transgressions, unless you take the view that simply living with themselves and each other is punishment enough. The lack of stern moralizing in the film probably contributed greatly to the outrage which initially greeted it as well as its being banned shortly after its release; no one was willing to acknowledge that the rich and powerful were so immoral and immune from consequences as Renoir plainly demonstrates.

From my perspective, almost seventy-five years later and with no personal identification with the culture being scrutinized, it’s easy to take the satire at face value and take no offense. But that would be missing the point, as well. Very few of the flaws and shortcomings of human nature are confined to a specific moment in time or a specific subset of people. Mockery usually reaches further than that. If I think about it, I know I’ve been guilty of obsessing over my first-world problems, of being reckless with other people’s feelings, and a long litany of other transgressions. But I’d rather be reminded of that, and make yet another effort to at least try to be a better person, than to shun the reminder and pretend everything is fine. I may not like it, but I know I need it.

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