It's the new black.
After the great Macbook debate of 2012, I spent some time cradling my film collection, wondering about its fate in this, the “post-DVD era.” I tried not to despair, but, upon looking at my copies of Citizen Kane and Brief Encounter, I realized the extent to which I would miss these disks. As your average 80-year-old stuck in a twentysomething body, I enjoy spending my evenings in bed, watching classic films on my DVD (or, shutter to think, via VHS) and eating a bowl of homemade cookie dough. I would ask pardon for my utter lack of nighttime etiquette, yet since Liz Lemon made “night cheese” perfectly acceptable, I believe this behavior falls under that same umbrella. Having said this, documentation might lend the practice—the movie watching, not the cookie dough—with some purpose and justification, so here is the first of my old-school, old-lady movie reviews.
First off, let me just say that The Criterion Collection is my worst nightmare. I love it, but the results of that affection are absolutely devastating: the films chosen by this distribution company are restored and equipped with various interviews, special features, extensive analysis, and companion essays, making a two-hour film into a ten-hour experience. Additionally, these can cost four times the price of a non-CC edition. I could have spent those taxes on a plethora of other things; doing my taxes, reading Kristof or Brooks, or even talking to someone. Instead, I’m offered the choice of watching Bill Murray’s commentary on why he identifies with Herman Blume in Rushmore. The decision between a cell phone payment and a $50.00 DVD set becomes uncomfortably easy.
Still, there’s just so much process involved in the Collection; one feels as if they’re part of the film’s history as they watch each of the archived and carefully crafted documents unfold. The knowledge and the history is irreplaceable. I just see this as my drug of choice.
Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (English: The Rules of the Game) is one such of these experiences and not one to be taken lightly; a product of interwar Europe, this 1939 classic explores the upstairs-downstairs dynamic through physical and sociological structure. There’s Octave, the resident Greek Chorus (fittingly played by director Renoir); Christine and Robert de la Cheyniest, the married couple ostensibly content yet circumnavigating the rules of propriety to fit their extramarital needs; Lisette, Christine’s devoted and wily maid, who seemingly has more power than her mistress; and Andre Jurieux, the aviator who choses to make his intentions on the married Christine known to the world, thus flouting convention and setting in motion a cataclysmic series of events that can only end poorly. The satire runs sharp throughout, biting mercilessly into the upper classes and exposing the flaws in their cultural facade, coming to an apex as they all gather at Robert and Christine’s country estate, La Colinère (filmed at Château de La Ferté-Saint-Aubin.)
Initially, the film was heralded as a total failure. Critics and audiences violently denounced it after its opening; with Europe on the brink of war, any negative attention or media directed toward the French was treated as treasonous. The original negative was destroyed during the impending war, and it wasn’t until 1959 that Renoir made strives to restore it, adding in scenes originally cut, and allowing Renoir to re-release his vision under less tenuous circumstances. By 1962, British film magazine Sight & Sound had ranked the film #3 in their list of greatest films of all time, and has held distinction since that time.
There are dozens of reasons why this movie is lauded with such enthusiasm; its keen and intricate layering–both through the trajectory of the plot and Renoir’s carefully constructed mise-en-scène–provides ample material for criticism and analysis.
Various relationships intersect over the course of the film–almost every man professes his love for the Austrian Christine, as she demurs almost every interaction; one could keenly observe her outsider status through the lens of the impending World War, but that’s a thesis in itself. The duality of actions and appearance proves too much for one visitor; this untimely end leads the final pronouncement–“it’s no one’s fault”–to question the social and moral accountability of both the generation and the nations in the advent of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria and intervention across Europe.
This movie is the precursor to Robert Altman’s 2001 classic Gosford Park, and, in many ways, Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, making it one of my trifecta of “go-to” comfort films on a rainy day. With or without cookie dough. – Hannah