The Rules of the Game (dir. Jean Renoir, 1939) – It was time to revisit the great work. Christopher Faulkner makes a great analysis of the film through an ethnographic mode. Instead of considering Renoir as the great auteur, the transcendent author of timeless films divorced from their social contexts, Faulkner historically, culturally, and socially situates Renoir as a conflicted and sometimes contradictory figure embroiled in French politics during the 1930s. His association with the Communist party and the Popular Front, along with his departure from France and eventually Europe as war broke out, combine with other factors to complicate this vision of Renoir as the artist-genius. When we consider The Rules of the Game solely in terms of deep-focus photography and Citizen Kane a few years later, we do not only the film an injustice, but history as well. Bazin doesn’t get into a lot of this stuff in his comments on the film, probably since he can take it more for granted considering his postwar French context. Now, however, Faulkner demonstrates that we can’t afford to do that. One of Faulkner’s helpful points is about Renoir’s casting of himself in the part of Ottave, after his brother Pierre (the acclaimed stage performer) dropped out of the role. Faulkner acknowledges the questionable degree to which every aspect of his analysis might have been intentional, but nevertheless proceeds to read Renoir’s presence in the film as one that can’t be ignored, particularly as Ottave is an out-of-work artist lazily hanging around the even lazier bourgeoisie. Ottave’s eventual departure for Paris, blindly heading into the future in a new place without any idea as to how he will support himself, almost perfectly parallels Renoir himself. While making the film, Renoir made numerous statements (which Faulkner cites) hinting at the possibility that he would need to leave France and that The Rules of the Game was his last all-out film effort before doing so. The film’s poor reception (complete with being banned both before and during Nazi occupation of France) further supports Faulkner’s reading. Tired of approaching reality in the naturalistic way that had defined his previous work (see especially La Bête Humaine), Renoir shifted into a more full-blown poetic realism, arguably with emphasis on the realism (i.e., social). What French authorities apparently missed in their early screenings of the film is its equally handed critique not only of the upper class but also of the lower. The excesses, laziness, immorality, and disregard for greater society define all of these folk so as to level the playing field of class and criticize France as a whole.
The Soft Skin (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1964) – It’s often considered the first of Truffaut’s mainstream efforts, and it’s easy to see why. Arguments have been made that all of Truffaut’s important nouvelle vague themes and styles are present, but they seem to protest too much. Herein lies one of the problems of forcing Truffaut into (admittedly) his own auteur formulation: he becomes pigeonholed and isn’t allowed to branch out, especially if that branching out resembles anything mainstream. The Soft Skin, if it resembles anything, is something out of Louis Malle’s films from a few years earlier, like Elevator to the Gallows or The Lover. Ostensibly a dark, tragic melodrama, Truffaut does save one of his last tricks for the final scene, a kind of nod to the ending of Shoot the Piano Player and the gangster genre, that cousin of melodrama. Wes Anderson’s affinity for Truffaut and this film in particular is easily explained. You have so many of those quick pan shots that halt on an object of focus, perhaps after then zooming in on it quickly. In some cases, you have closeups on things like the fuel hose going into the tank, a mini-montage between getting out of the car and then action taking place at the gas station. Anderson has taken this camera move (which apparently doesn’t happen much in the rest of Truffaut’s work) and exploited it ever since the Bottle Rocket short (consider the shot of Dignan straightening out the little soldier figures early in that film). Certainly a shift is taking place here in Truffaut’s career (someone said he was too distracted interviewing Hitchcock to make a great film), but its trajectory following The Soft Skin says something about Truffaut and his ideas that exceeds the film itself. If anyone else had made the film, it would likely have been widely praised for its tight, suspenseful storyline and the clever, pedestrian mode of cinematography (thank you, Raoul Coutard) that captures what is certainly a Hitchcockian mode of spectatorship. We are in the action, involved, perpetually concerned, and our affections are manipulated and torn. And oh yeah, that opening sequence: clearly the inspiration to the opening sequence of The Darjeeling Limited.
Le Doulos (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962) – Having jumped around Melville’s corpus, from Les enfants terribles, his staging of Cocteau’s script, to Le Samouraï, his fuller, more developed gangster world well after the glory days of the nouvelle vague, stepping into Bob le flambeur and now Le Doulos brings one into the young heart of Melville’s cinema. Whereas Bob slightly and subtly embraced or celebrated the suggestion of the aging gambler’s vindication after pulling one last heist, Le Doulos ends more tragically. The narrative is dual and duel, a two-edged exchange between two criminals, one of him suspects the other and the other whose informant status makes him suspect to the audience. The film really is for the audience. By oscillating between these two men, we aren’t sure on whom the focus should be and, more importantly, with whom we should sympathize. By posing the question this way, Melville’s film cleverly distracts us from the larger point, brought to the fore by the conclusion: we shouldn’t sympathize with either of these guys. Morally, they’re equally contemptible. The film beings, after all, with the more sympathetic of the two murdering his (apparently) most trusted confidant. Narratively, hints are thrown at us throughout the film that this isn’t going to end well. It’s a cliché now for a gangster to talk about hanging it all up after this last push, how he’s going to retire in his ivy-covered cottage with his lady friend and give up the life of cops and robbers. Since Melville is overtly borrowing from the 30s American gangster genre, and we’ve heard Jimmy Cagney utter a version of those words before, we know where this is headed. Nevertheless, Melville throws so many plot turns at us (arguably too many) that it’s easy to forget these moral and narrative inevitabilities and get caught up in sympathizing with these tragic, immoral men. And at the risk of this seeming to be a footnote, WOW is this misogynistic. The way that woman are beaten in full view of the camera, and then their later off-screen beatings are described among male characters and then quickly and easily forgiven is too much. This doesn’t seem to be presented critically, really, or if it is, it’s enveloped in the larger point that these are morally reprehensible guys. This seems incomplete, though, or too subtle to make the necessary point. This was the 60s, after all.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (dir. Chantal Akerman, 1974) –
M. Hulot’s Holiday (dir. Jacques Tati, 1953) – It’s a treat to see what else was going on in French cinema during the height of the cinema du papa, other than one of the other great deviants, Robert Bresson. Tati’s Hulot is the sound-era French equivalent of Chaplin, with some Keaton thrown in. (These seem to be our only popular categories for the film clown.) Sound is huge here, of course, as Bazin has observed in that hard-to-get essay “Monsieur Hulot and Time.” The very clarity and deliberateness of the soundtrack displays its importance in terms of comedy as well as the world it presents. And this is very much about a world, albeit a variant and microcosm of that which Tati will present later in Playtime. This one is the vacation territory of the idle upper-class, but Tati playfully inserts the token social theorist into the diegesis, with his constant rambling about the working class and other ideological idealism, in order not so much to skewer him as to relegate him to the background. This figure is part of the lazy world on which M. Hulot inadvertently wreaks havoc. But on the other hand, it’s as much true that his out-of-place-ness leads them to wreak havoc on themselves by means of Hulot. He’s rarely the actual, direct cause of the mayhem. Instead, he’s merely the inevitable trigger of this silly world collapsing on itself. Ingenious, hilarious, and remarkable how simply adding a single foreign character into a status-quo context lodges a tongue-in-cheek critique of an otherwise uninterrogated world.
La Grande Illusion (dir. Jean Renoir, 1937) – Forgot what a masterpiece this is, a nearly perfectly choreographed piece of cinematic poetry. Christopher Faulkner’s helpful book The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir helps to orient our view away from La Grand Illusion as an objective masterpiece, though, and as a production within a certain industry by a typically complicated filmmaker along with a host of cronies at a specific point in history and in a specific place in the world. While certainly an anti-war film, Renoir still holds certain national loyalties, and it may be that his larger critique isn’t against war but against social class standings. This may strike us as curious, since Renoir himself was very much a member of the privileged upper class, one who couldn’t otherwise have afforded to lodge such scathing critiques against his own class. But Renoir’s association with the Communist party during this period further supports the point. A film like Boudu Saved From Drowning gives us yet another subtle variation on this theme, made a few years prior to La Grande Illusion and critiquing those know-it-all petit bourgeois folk who would believe that they can easily change the world by attempting to reform a homeless man. Jean Gabin’s placement in La Grande Illusion as the working class hero offers the audience a point of contact in terms of character sympathies, a precursor to the Steve McQueen character in The Great Escape in a few ways. This film has more of an epilogue than we might expect, a lengthy sequence between the men’s escape from the chateau fortress and their eventual crossing the border into Switzerland. The in-between sequence is one of pure melodrama and featuring the only woman in the film. Strikingly, this is the strongest anti-war bit in the film, even more than the French and Nazi officers ironically drinking together and lamenting the nature of the rules of the game of war. Or, perhaps the melodrama sequence only strikes an American as more moving on account of that genre’s placeholder as the great American mode. Who knows.