On April 6, I learned who provided Boston-Cambridge cinephiles with one of our most adventurous venues. The Harvard Film Archive celebrated its thirtieth birthday with a talk by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, who has written extensively on cinema in Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage and The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. The Archive’s director Haden Guest introduced Cavell as one of those directly responsible for the institution’s existence. For the Archive’s anniversary, Cavell asked to lecture on one of his favorite films, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which was screened after his succinct speech.
To Cavell, The Rules of the Game establishes “the ascension of the cinema over theater,” cinema’s ability to view action “from the wings” as well as from the front. Cavell cites as two of the film’s most important aspects its frontality and its theatricality, embodied in the famous “danse macabre” sequence in which a group of aristocrats put on a musical performance for their friends. By cutting from the frontal angle–the audience’s point of view–to its reverse behind the stage actors, Renoir shows film’s ability to take us behind the show: beyond the farce of social pretensions and into the tragedy they produce.
Toward the end of The Rules of the Game, the normally genteel protagonist Marquis de la Chesnaye madly pursues his wife’s would-be lover through the halls of his chateau. He is distracted momentarily by his servant and his gamekeeper, who are, like him, brawling over a woman. “Stop this comedy!” shouts La Chesnaye to his butler Corneille who, nonplussed, replies, “Which one?”
La Chesnaye may not recognize his own hysteria in his servants’ uproar, but the butler certainly does. Stanley Cavell posits Corneille’s name as Renoir’s somewhat mocking allusion to the conventions of the French stage. But even if Renoir reveled in the camera’s ability to surpass theater in complexity of point of view, his superb storytelling owes something to the classical idea of unity. Despite the disparate spaces and times of film narrative, the interlacing of The Rules of the Game’s subplots demonstrates a familiarity with the traditions of theatrical comedy. And except for the exposition, the film takes place over one weekend in a large chateau–a tribute, perhaps, to the unity of action, time and place that French drama adopted from the Greeks.
The Rules of the Game doesn’t bewilder its audience with all its upper- and lower-class romances, infatuations, friendships and grudges, which the screenplay establishes with an economy that classical Hollywood must have envied, before driving them to collisions. The opening of the film passes the narrative so smoothly from character to character that, within ten minutes, we have received a whole picture of a bourgeois marriage and the lies and jealousies that threaten it. André Jurieu, the heroic pilot who pines after La Chesnaye’s wife Christine, bemoans his unrequited love during a radio interview at the site of his plane landing; the film cuts to Christine listening to the broadcast with her maid Lisette. The passion of male characters for these two women creates a set of intersecting relationships too complex for the term “love triangle.” I have just drawn a chart linking all the romantically involved characters and found that the figure would need to be open and seven-sided. But I digress.
To continue: Christine anxiously goes to her husband, who is listening to the radio broadcast. When he reassures her of his trust in her, she is so grateful that, touched, he hurries off to call his mistress in order to end their liaison. After the phone call, the film breaks off to follow his mistress and eavesdrop on her male friends, who discuss the La Chesnaye couple while the radio plays in the background. I give this summary only to demonstrate the deftness of the narrative: we already know Christine, La Chesnaye, the mistress, the would-be lover and–through the crowd at the plane landing, the mistress’ friends, and the relationship of Christine and her maid–a bit of the world in which they live. But the recurrence of the radio broadcast unifies the exposition, anchoring everything to Jurieu’s declaration of passion.
In the adroitness of the storytelling itself, Renoir suggests the facile, superficial quality of relationships among these aristocrats. But not all the film passes so quickly, especially not the famous scene of the hunt. La Chesnaye’s weekend guests are assembled to shoot pheasants and rabbits on the grounds of his chateau. Renoir’s camera dwells on the animals’ apprehension as the beaters approach off-screen. The creatures begin to run and are slaughtered on camera. One particular shot lingers on the grotesque stiffening and twitching of a rabbit’s limbs during its death throes. The suffering horrifies us, but not the bourgeois shooters or their servants. For them, hunting provides relief. The vengeful face of La Chesnaye’s (now ex-)mistress as she shoots delivers the point: she must respond calmly to his rejection, but she can vent her anger with a rifle.
We begin to understand this society as one that rigidly regulates emotional catharsis, while everyday relations are reduced to frivolity and pleasantry–a kind of light “theater.” La Chesnaye embodies this world, its elegance as well as its silliness. Jurieu calls him a “liar,” a “snob,” and an “idiot” obsessed with mechanical birds; more disturbingly, one of the servants at the chateau sneeringly refers to his Jewish grandfather. But aristocrat or actor, La Chesnaye spends the film in a struggle to be as kind and civil as possible. Cavell is right to insist on “his vulnerability, his humanity, and his sincere willingness to please.” Placing him next to bouquets of lilies in several scenes, Renoir suggests his delicacy and fragility. His refinement depends on an unstable peace threatened by brutishness and violence.
And La Chesnaye himself inflicts some of that violence. But the last few images of the film allow us to see him at his best, if also his most absurd: inviting his friends to come in from the cold and forget the terrible “accident” that has forever ruined the illusion of harmony. La Chesnaye’s way of life cannot survive real conflict, but Renoir shows that some of his ideals–generosity, refinement, grace–are worth preserving.