I wonder if these pieces are just going to keep getting shorter? It seems like a good way to get a conversation, with a brief set of musings rather than any attempt at thoroughness.
In any case, it would be hard for me to write more on this movie, since I’ve just seen it twice, once five years ago and once just now, which has sort of refreshed my memory of it and revitalized the questions that buzzed in my mind the first time I saw it. Without answering them.
“If France were destroyed tomorrow and nothing remained but this film, the whole country and its civilization could be reconstructed from it.” ~ Richard Roud.
I’m not even sure how to describe this one. Renoir said his intention was to make to make “an agreeable film” which would nevertheless serve as a critique of a society he considered absolutely rotten. The fact that the film was made in 1939, and was roundly detested by critics and audiences at the time, suggests all kinds of resonances. And I think looking for them is one of the mistakes I made in my viewing, because on first sight the film isn’t obviously allegorical and the moments of critique appear scattered thinly. It is important to situate the film in the context of pre-war France, but you can put that aside until the conclusion, where it unavoidably washes in. The movie’s thematic purpose really all kicks in at the end, when you can look back and see a bit more clearly what the film is doing in this regard. But I suspect a first viewing (and I’ve really had two first viewings, since there was such a long gap between them) should concentrate more on the surface.
On the surface, then, what we have is a country house comedy with an odd tone — the wildlife holocaust in the middle, where Renoir’s camera pauses to observe the death throes of a rabbit in minute detail, certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing. Real death is always a tricky thing on screen. I don’t generally like it, unless the camera has captured a specific death that would have happened anyway, as in LE SANG DES BETES. But I would willingly eat any of the animals slaughtered in Renoir’s film, so I don’t think I have any moral ground to stand on. I do worry about Renoir using this scene as an indictment of the upper classes, when it’s all been staged at his command. But I guess the intention is different. So this is one thing I’d like to hear about.
The other big one is — does anyone find this film funny? It follows the structure of a country house comedy, with Renoir citing Moliere and Mozart as influences (“if you’re picking a master, choose a plump one”), and delivers this bitter aftertaste and social critique, but could one argue that critics and audiences were right to turn away in the sense that the results should contain a few good laughs along the way? Maybe it’s just me.
But having watched the whole thing, this objection does seem to lose all force: Renoir is using farce structure and comic stylisation to tell a tragic story in a different way. The fact that there are only a few barely audible smiles along the way doesn’t really matter. It could be argued that the comic style serves as a metaphor for the frivolous way the characters see their existence, and for us to laugh would be to miss the point.
So that’s two major talking point. I’ll add a third: Marcel Dalio’s eyebrows.
And a fourth: the blocking and camera direction, which I could really appreciate even on these isolated viewings. Farce is notoriously hard to do onscreen, as Richard Lester has observed — the laugh depends on a character going in one door and coming out another, so the minute the director cuts or moves the camera, the audience forgets which door is which and the laugh is gone. The spacial unity of the stage is normally a prerequisite. Renoir makes a virtue out of confusion, and even a theme out of it: his camera is constantly saying to us, with an exaggerated Gallic shrug, “But there is too much going on.”
We might be focused on one grouping, and another set of characters will dash through the frame, engrossed in their own plotline. Or we will swish-pan off one confrontation onto another, sometimes arriving a second before the frame is filled with bustling action, sometimes alighting on a subplot in media res. In the Danse Macabre sequence this reaches a dizzying zenith of choreographic excellence achieving Pure Cinema in the midst of the theatrical.
This kind of thing benefits enormously from actors who can move, and here the standouts for me were Dalio and his majordome Corneille, played by Eddy Debray, who barely registers as a character because he’s so devoted to the task at hand, but is extremely nimble and elegant, packing his entire characterisation into a few clipped gestures. The way he snaps his fingers for help when young Jackie faints, before her body has even hit the floor… suave.
Editing by Mme Huguet and “Marguerite.” That’s Marguerite Renoir.
Production design by Max Douy and Eugene Lourie, whose participation makes Renoir a single handshake away from GORGO.
Assistant director, Henri-Cartier Bresson. I think you might be wasting this man’s talents, Jean. Ever consider giving him a camera?
Cinematography by whoever was around. Including the brother, but hey, it’s a talented family. How Papa Jean attained such a unified look and such dynamic results with such a disparate pack of cameramen I can’t figure.
Costumes by Coco Chanel — OK, Fiona will definitely want to watch this.
STOP PRESS — I show the film to Fiona, who enjoys it greatly, more than I did first time, and this time I get a lot more from it. I also find it pretty funny. Without attempting to be exhaustive (impossible), I can now say a bit more. Second time through, you gain the ability to admire the construction as it plays out, magnificently. I’m more and more impressed with Paulette Dubost as Lisette, the maid (Blimey! She’s still alive!)
Fiona becomes curious about pre-war Chanel, which is not her area of expertise. We agree though that Mila Parély has the best outfits in this. Fiona reckons that Coco would have enjoyed all that hunting garb since she always liked adapting men’s tailoring to women’s outfits.
I haven’t even talked about Renoir himself, as actor. The epitome of the elegant fat man, but with more punch and vigour than you’d expect, and more than ought to be compatible with grace and sensitivity, but it’s all there, and all turned up to eleven. Why on Earth didn’t he act more, in other people’s films if not his own? Perhaos as a result of the failure of this one. He obviously liked getting in front of the cameras though, since he squeezed himself into things like LE TESTAMENT DU DR CORDELIER, and filmed intros to several of his ’30s films.
And Julien Carette as Marceau the poacher is an interesting figure — the most confident, socially mobile and knowingly amoral character in the film. I’m fascinated by his easy relationship with Dalio — which counts for nothing in the end, he’s no more than an amusement to his master. Carette is very appealing under most circumstances, but utterly revolting whenever he flirts. The sleazy simper technique: what woman could resist? It doesn’t wholly surprise me to learn that Carette was burned to death by his own nylon shirt.
Fiona mentions GOSFORD PARK, and it’s an interesting comparison. Altman often made himself unpopular with audiences by pushing tragedy and comedy into uncomfortable proximity, which is exactly what LA REGLE does. Of course, this film is incredibly tight and pre-planned, although Renoir was clearly very smart about incorporating chance and improvisation into his machinations. Altman’s successful films tend to start with a tight structure that no amount of furious demolition can shake, then he lets the players pull in every direction at once while he cocks his head and listens to the music of the narrative popping its rivets. A WEDDING is another obvious comparison here, but that one’s purer comedy.
And I’m totally convinced that the last shot, shadows passing along a wall, the figures hidden by a balustrade, is evoking Plato’s shadows in the allegory of the cave. Anybody confirm this? Something about mistaking shadows for reality could be a theme here, and at any rate it’s a good Shadowplay note to finish on.