The Rules of the Game

We had a French exchange student staying with us for a couple of weeks, Sophie. Turns out she’s applying to film schools, wants to learn the ropes, start as a cameraperson and work her way up to directing. She’s well-versed in American film, a great admirer of Wes Anderson (and took advantage of the opportunity to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is still playing at the local art house), but arrived knowing next to nothing about the classics of her own country’s cinematic tradition.

I had my work cut out for me. She’d heard of the New Wave, of course, but had never seen Breathless or The 400 Blows. We remedied that—and Jean-Paul Belmondo gained another admirer. She’d never heard of Chris Marker, but I’ll bet she’s going to knock the socks off the interview committee with her insights into La jetée and Si j’avais quatre dromadaires, which we happened to catch at the Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival before she left.

And the crowning touch, my favorite French film of all time: Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game. Yes, I know it’s everybody’s favorite. Long before Downton Abbey, here was an upstairs/downstairs-y story, complete with frocks and motorcars, that didn’t indulge in nostalgia for a lifestyle that was soon to be destroyed.

Renoir couldn’t wait to see this world end. It was dead already, as he shows us hererenoir in bear suitThat’s him in the bear suit, by the way. When he asks the amorous couple to help him out of it, the gentleman responds, “On n’a pas de temps.” We have no time. Renoir’s character repeats the line, just to make sure we get it.

War is coming, but you wouldn’t know it from the goings-on at the Château de la Colinière. A weak-willed aristocrat, played by the inimitable Marcel Dalio (in what was really his last great role) has arranged a shooting party. Such a time-honored pastime of the leisure class! Only it’s not so charming, when you see bunny rabbits getting shot. As the late Alexander Sesonske noted in the essay he wrote for the 2004 Criterion edition:

In a film whose shots often run for a minute or more, here fifty-one shots appear in less than four minutes, in a mounting rhythm of cutting and movement that culminates in an awesome barrage of gunfire as, in twenty-two shots—fifty-three seconds—twelve animals die.

This makes The Rules of the Game sound gruesome, but it’s actually an enchanting film. Renoir’s affection for his characters comes through in every scene. Flawed human beings dancing on the edge of a volcano (as he put it). You feel sorry for each and every one of them.

And Sophie? I came home the next day and found her watching it again, along with all the supplemental materials on the Criterion disc.

Mission accomplished.

Casablanca

I wish I could have been on the set when they were filming “Casablanca.”  What a great story, and what a great cast!  Wartime Hollywood must have been a lot like Rick’s Café Américain.  Refugee actors desperate for work, preyed on by studio executives who knew they could get them on the cheap.  But something about the exotic mix of nationalities, along with the high stakes involved, brought out the best in people.

All those Europeans, their nuanced performances, make Humphrey Bogart’s straight-talking American stand out like a sore thumb.  Don’t get me wrong.  Bogart is perfect as Rick, the cynical nightclub owner who retrieves his sense of purpose while letting go of the only woman he ever loved.  Against the shadowy elements of “Casablanca,” his clear-eyed character emerges in sharp relief, the way a searchlight cuts through the night fog.  No wonder the exquisite Ilsa fell in love with him!

I’ve never liked Peter Lorre better than in the role of Ugarte.  “You know, Rick,” he says, “I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”  Even a thief like Ugarte can disarm with his honesty.  Then there’s the fine French actor, Marcel Dalio, in a bit part as Emil the croupier.  Mere minutes onscreen, but he is luminous.  Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari:  pure pleasure to watch this master actor at work.  And Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault.  Seeing him come around and commit himself to the anti-Nazi cause makes me smile every time.

“Rick, you’re a sentimentalist,” he tells Bogey.  Well, count me in, guys.

(18 January 2011)