Even though Jean Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game is thought to be one of the two or three greatest films ever made, I was initially quite underwhelmed, even bored. I recognized that the camera work was masterful, the deep focus a model for Citizen Kane. But what kind of story was Renoir, this Prospero at 24 frames per second, trying to tell? Aristocrats and their servants behaving badly is one of the oldest clichés in film. From Upstairs Downstairs to Downtown Abby, you don’t even have to bother with subtitles. You can get the same story in English.
The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñuel, on the other hand, had me hooked right from the start. The story is very similar, the breakdown of western civilization as represented by a group of upper-class house guests at a grand estate in an unnamed Spanish speaking city. But Buñuel tells the story in such a novel way, and lets loose so much leftist rage against his doomed bourgeoisie that my angry American populist side just wanted to lie back and have a cigarette. Seeing a group of rich assholes not only tortured, but tortured by themselves? What could be better than that?
I suppose the problem is that I’m too hateful and too immature for Jean Renoir’s transcendent humanism. I need blood, not understanding, guillotines, not a subtle, nuanced exploration of the different ways in which the working classes imitate the bad behavior of the aristocracy. Yes, Renoir is right. Workers, domestic servants, and slaves are often loyal to their masters. The Rules of the Game’s Lisette is a perfectly truthful representation of a maid who works as a personal servant to a great lady. She’ll abandon her surly, tyrannical gamekeeper of a husband to go off with “Madame” without thinking twice about it. But give me the opening of The Exterminating Angel instead. The cooks, waiters, and coat check boys sense that something evil is about to go down in the grand manor house of Señor Edmundo Nobile and his wife, Lucia. One by one they leave, even at the cost of getting fired. It’s better to lose your job then to hang out and watch the Red Masque of Death, to wait around for the “exterminating angel” to hover over the ornate dining room that will soon host the gathering of the damned.
Once Buñuel lets the innocent working class leave –- Except for the butler. “Every butler wants to be bourgeois” we’re told. –- he can put the cap back on the jar, now full of his aristocratic cockroaches, and, like a malicious schoolboy, watch them devour one another. What makes The Exterminating Angel even more satisfying is that he doesn’t even need to put a cap on the jar. Señor Edmundo Nobile and his guests are trapped, not by any outside, coercive power, but by their own intellectual and emotional paralysis. Try as they might, they can’t leave the dining room, and I mean literally. Every person who makes for the door after the dinner party is over suddenly gets tired and falls asleep. When they wake up the next morning, they still can’t get out. They get distracted by conversation. They quarrel. They forget. They want breakfast. They get lost in conversation. Even after their intelligentsia, a doctor and two of his friends, figure out nobody can leave the room, they’re still trapped. Why doesn’t someone just walk out? Nobody knows. Almost as if we were in a Twilight Zone or Star Trek episode, the door seems to have some kind of force field, that force field, of course, being their own ruling class mindset. Franco won, Buñuel is telling us. The ruling class, the “job creators,” got what they wanted. Democracy is gone. There is no society, as Margaret Thatcher would say two decades later, only individuals and families. But far from being a blessing, it’s a curse. Every aristocrat is trapped inside a tiny world of his own making, with nothing left to do but to worship his own household gods, which, as it turns out, are also his “exterminating angels.”
France, on the other hand, in spite of Marshall Petain and Vichy, would never quite go fascist the way Spain did. Renoir, filming in 1939, like Buñuel’s cooks, waiters and coat check boys, knows something bad is on the horizon. He knows France is morally weak, that the French people lack the will to maintain their republic, and he stages the country’s breakdown in miniature, but he doesn’t quite have the sadistic glee of the loser with no hope the way Buñuel does.
The Rules of the Game opens with a quote from Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro — “If Cupid was not meant to flitter, why was he given wings?” We then find ourselves at Le Bourget Airfield just outside Paris, the very same airfield Lindbergh landed at in 1927, to witness André Jurieux, a wannabe French Lindbergh, complete a solo flight across the Atlantic. True, it’s 12 years after Lindbergh, but since André Jurieux makes it in 22 hours to Lindbergh’s 32, I suppose it means something. The press is there. There’s a crowd of people. A government minister sends his press secretary. But the one person Jurieux cares about, the aristocratic Christine de la Chesnaye, is not. Jurieux has an emotional breakdown on the radio.
“I did it for you Christine,” he says. “now it means nothing.”
Looking back at The Rules of the Game with the hindsight of knowing that France would surrender just a year later, we can’t help but note that Jurieux, a young man, an aviator, just the kind of “hero” who should have been preparing for war against the Germans is a weak willed ninny pining over a woman. To be honest — and maybe I’m just a misogynist — part of the reason The Rules of the Game doesn’t engage me is that I can’t quite see what all the fuss is about Christine de la Chesnaye, Nora Gregor. She looks OK for a 40-year-old woman, but from my crudely American point of view she’s just a snobbish rich bitch who can’t make up her mind, and, as a result, winds up destroying all three men who love her. Why don’t these frogs, these cheese eating surrender Monkeys, these civilized Frenchman tell her to go to hell, and walk away?Jurieux is bad enough, but there’s Robert de la Chesnaye, Marcel Dialo, Rosenthal from The Grand Illusion, who, it’s true, cheats on her, but in the end can’t quite leave. There’s also Octave, Jean Renoir himself, a sly, rotund intellectual who loves Christine as much as Jurieux does, even though he’s better at hiding it. And if that weren’t enough, there’s Lisette, who, quite understandably, cheats on her swaggering bully of a husband with Octave, with Marceau, a poacher “given the opportunity to improve himself by being a servant,” and with just about any other man who catches her fantasy, but who, in the end is every bit as devoted to the great lady as André Jurieux, the “cupid with wings” who, at the end, gets shot down by brutish masculine jealousy.
If aristocrats often worship the household gods they see in the mirror, then in The Rules of the Game, the only household god around is Christine de la Chesnaye
But I suppose that’s not totally accurate. Christine de la Chesnaye, the daughter of a famous Viennese classical music conductor, represents the “western civilization” that the French, being the most civilized people in Europe, all worship. But Robert de la Chesnaye, who’s a bit less devoted to Christine than Octave or André Jurieux, worships another household god, technology. Robert has a seemingly endless collection of toys, clocks, wind up dolls, a gigantic Wurlitzer that breaks down at the film’s climax, that he seems more devoted to than either his wife Christie or his mistress Geneviève de Marras. This, of course, is not the kind of technology that will beat Hitler. Robert is a liberal, broad minded, civilized man, that very American stereotype of the Frenchman who doesn’t care if his wife cheats on him or if the servants have some fun on the job. But he’s also a weakling who can’t keep control of his own estate, or provide for the safety of his guests, including, of course, André Jurieux, who’s accidentally murdered by the maid Lisette’s jealous husband Schumacher. What good is a liberal aristocrat if there’s no democracy? What happens when the French elite grows soft and decadent, even while they remain the elite? Well, we all know what happens. A crude, brutish conqueror comes to take their place. Fascism replaces degenerate liberalism. Robert and Christine’s country estate, La Colinière, gives way to Vichy.
Did Renoir know what was coming? Probably not. He no more had a crystal ball then Kafka. But if Kafka caught the essence of the concentration camps in the aesthetics of his novel The Metamorphosis, then Renoir probably had some inkling that France was no longer the France of 1793 or 1914, that it wouldn’t fight in 1940 simply because it didn’t think it had anything to fight for. The problem is that when I watched The Rules of the Game I didn’t think I had anything to root for. So it bored me. Who cares if André Jurieux gets shot? He’s a baby who probably deserved it. It was only when Luis Buñuel released my inner proletarian hater and let me watch these same people tortured, put into a jar like bugs and roasted alive in the sun, that I was glued to the screen. Give me an angry, defeated Spanish anarchist over a civilized, liberal Frenchman any day. The Rules of the Game might be a better movie than The Exterminating Angel, but The Exterminating Angel is 100 times more enjoyable.