Tag Archives: Jean Renoir

La régle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) – Best Pictures of 1939 (#1)

Christine entertains friends in the country, including Jean Renoir as Octave

Modern non-French audiences might scratch their heads over the controversy Jean Renoir’s classic  La régle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) caused in pre-war France. What we might see as a harmless satire on the silliness of the upper class actually cut to the bone at a particularly sensitive and insecure time and place. Renoir ripped away the illusion of reverence for the upper class, depicting them as frivolous and vain people who surround themselves with equally frivolous and vain friends and employees. These were the same people who were buckling under the pressures of Nazi Germany and advocating their own version of Franco-fascism to stave off the Aryan threat. Renoir directly challenges the ruling class with this farcical melodrama that follows the loves and lusts at a French country estate among the hosts, guests, and servants. Audiences would have walked away gobsmacked that these profoundly unserious people could have any legitimacy in a situation as serious as government and relations with belligerent Germany.

The story plays like a Molière farce capped with Shakespearean tragedy. At the center is the Marquis de la Cheyniest – Robert to his friends – and his wife Christine. They are hosting a weekend getaway at their country estate with their equally vacuous friends. Both have been involved in extramarital dalliances – Robert with Geneviève and Christine with the famed aviator André Jurieux. For various reasons both Geneviève and André are invited. The Cheyniest’s  complacency and arrogance shade them from reality and their money and power protects them from consequences, so they feel safe inviting marital disaster into their homes. Having their lovers so close heightens the danger and raises the stakes. Are their lives really so boring that they need this manufactured and unnecessary drama? (The answer seems to be yes – Robert, like a king in The Thief of Baghdad dotes over his collection of windup toys rather than his wife.)

Danger lurks for Lisette and Marceau

Like any romantic farce the weekend devolves into a comedy of errors – and the hijinks aren’t confined to the hosts and their extramarital companions. Christine’s maid Lisette flirts with the new servant Marceau under the jealous eye of her husband Schumacher. Eventually Schumacher, fed up with Marceau’s shameless pursuit of his wife, loses his cool and, in the most absurd scene of the movie, chases the man with his gun through the guest filled house, firing almost at random. The guests are shocked, but it seems less at their own personal danger and more at the impropriety of servants quarreling before the guests. Schumacher may as well have thrown custard pies and he would have gotten the same clutch-the-pearls reaction.

Schumacher’s bullets, though not taken all that seriously, indicate that these romantic entanglements are not harmless. The film ends in sobering tragedy with murder, but, closely following the rules of the game, the event is explained away as an accident, rather than as a logical outcome of their reckless behavior. Renoir seems to have wanted this story to shake France awake from the looming Nazi threat and the rulers of France who flirted with the enemy, anxious to retain their position and privilege. But Renoir wouldn’t let them play the same game without exposure because he understood there would be no way to go back and explain away the coming disaster as an accident. No matter how charming Robert and Christine may be (and Renoir was smart enough to make them charming people), their empty-headed arrogance is, according to Renoir, leading the entire country to disaster. It’s amazing how prescient so many of these pre-war French movies were and none more so than the best movie of 1939, La régle du jeu.

 

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Simone Simon (La bête humaine) – Best Actress of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances: Jean Arthur (You Can’t Take It with You), Bette Davis (Jezebel), Janet Gaynor (The Young in Heart), Katherine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby), Katherine Hepburn (Holiday), Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion), Miliza Korjus (The Great Waltz), Vivien Leigh (St. Martin’s Lane), Michèle Morgan (Quai des brumes), Margaret Sullavan (Three Comrades)

It’s hard to consider the best actress of 1938 without Simone Simon entering the conversation for her melancholy, conniving, and tragic role in Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (The Human Beast). She plays a beautiful woman (what other type could she play?) trapped in a stifling marriage desperate for a way out. Modern audiences often identify her role as an early femme fatale, but I’ve never thought that was entirely appropriate. Her motivations are more complex than later, more traditional femme fatale-types, like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street. These women were driven by greed, but Simon’s Severine is more complex. She’s trapped by violence and jealousy, and tries to use the only tool she has to escape: her sexuality.

Simone Simon as the mysterious Severine with Fernand Ledoux as her jealous husband

Severine is married to Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), a slightly pudgy, plain-looking railroad station master. We can’t help but wonder why she married the man – she certainly could have attracted a younger, better looking man. And Roubaud isn’t poor, but as station master he isn’t rich either. While we are tangentially aware of these discrepancies, Roubaud is consumed by them, acutely aware that Severine could have done much better – and still can.

When Roubaud discovers that Severine’s godfather M. Grandmorin seduced her, he flies into a jealous rage and forces her to help him kill Grandmorin. From the time they kill the old man, Severine withdraws even further from her husband. She is now pointedly aware of how violent he truly is and knows it is only a matter of time before Roubaud’s jealousy and guilt will overcome him, and he will murder her as well.

She finds solace and hope in a dangerous relationship with Lantier (Jean Gabin), a locomotive engineer and a friend of her husband. They fall in love and, eventually, Severine urges him to help her kill Roubaud before he can get to them. This is when Severine’s motives get cloudy and highlight the mastery of Simon’s performance. Does she really love Lantier, or is she an opportunist, using his affections to get rid of her husband? Simon plays the part with a deep sincerity that compels us to accept her emotions as genuine. She isn’t cruel or evil; she wants to save herself – nothing terrible about that.

Ironically, despite Jean Gabin’s hypnotic screen presence, Simon’s most powerful scenes are played opposite Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud. In them we see that she truly loved her husband despite (or maybe because of) his jealousy, but all affection dies when he kills Grandmorin.

Simone Simon commands the screen, juggling Severine’s contradictory traits – her vulnerability and strength, her nativity and intelligence – in ways only an actual person could. . Simon is crafty in this part, but never gimmicky. We’re never able to quite put our fingers on what drives Severine; every time we think we’ve got it, she does something to undermine our satisfactory explanation. The ambiguity with which Simon approaches Severine is an intelligent acknowledgement that we are complex animals and no matter how much we try, we will never be able to fully understand another person’s motivations, especially those secret, dark ones that lead to murder. It’s a masterful job.

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La Marseillaise – Best Pictures of 1938 (#9)

Jean Renoir tackled some major themes throughout the socially, economically, and politically turbulent years of the 1930s.  Eager to use the power of the cinema to do more than entertain, Renoir envisioned La Marseillaise as a rallying call for the people of France to shake off their proto-fascist leanings and remember their revolution and what it meant.  In 1938, after the collapse of the Popular Front, the coalition of leftist parties that brought some political constancy, France plunged into back into its vulnerable instability.  With this movie, neither particularly left nor right, Renoir tried to remind his countrymen that they were all French and in it  together, that they had a glorious past that put them politically well ahead of most other European nations, that they had to remember why their forefathers fought, and that they should not sacrifice their work for the empty promises of a golden-tongued demagogue.

What better way to reinvigorate French national spirit than to retell the story of the French Revolution (while shrewdly avoiding extending the story into the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon)?  Told episodically, the movie relates the outbreak and progress of the revolution that would oust a monarchy and usher in a republic.  Renoir pops in for visits with King Louis (Pierre Renoir), everyday peasants, aristocrats in exile, fugitives from the law, and, finally, a volunteer regiment from Marseilles that came to Paris to help defend their country from foreign invaders seeking to take advantage of France’s instability (an interesting parallel to the state of France after the fall of the Popular Front).

 

Renoir presents these soldiers, all common people, as the future of France.  They embody everything that “liberty, equality, and fraternity” means.  This isn’t an argument he’s making, a thesis he’s suggesting; it is, Renoir says, plain fact.  And to embrace a new political ideology that would subvert and deny that history is unconscionable.

Despite Renoir’s political goals with the film, it never feels jingoistic, nor does he sacrifice historical accuracy.  Aristocrats and the King aren’t painted as quite the treacherous villains we might expect.  Renoir treats them somewhat sympathetically, aware that they didn’t create the system that exploited the poor anymore than the poor did; they just had the good luck to be born to a Comte or a Duc.  They are bewildered by the changes going on around them as the revolution makes it clear that they are now irrelevant to the future and, maybe even worse, they were always irrelevant.

 

In the second half of the film Renoir uses the spreading of the tune, “La Marseillaise,” that would go on to become France’s national anthem.  The soldiers from the South, enthusiastic about the future of freedom and equality, bring the song north, leaving it behind in each village they visit until finally reaching Paris where it becomes a hit among the people, eager for a stirring musical rendition of their revolutionary struggle.  There are no notes more rousing, awe inspiring, more French, than the opening notes of France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”  One doesn’t have to be French for it to stir our emotions, just look at Humphrey Bogart using it to shut up a group of boisterous Nazis in Casablanca.

La Marseillaise is a wonderful film even ignoring the contemporary political tensions.  It is a compelling and revelatory vision of the French Revolution, one of the most important revolutions in modern world history.  Renoir’s even-handed approach to all parties saves the film from mindless propagandizing, instead giving us a pretty accurate account of what happened from multiple perspectives.  This is one of those rare examples where history is privileged over cinematic conventions without sacrificing entertainment value.

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Best Supporting Actress of 1937 – Dita Parlo (Grand Illusion)

Other Noteworthy Supporting Performances:

Mary Astor (The Hurricane)

Fay Bainter (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Andrea Leeds (Stage Door)

May Whitty (Night Must Fall)

Gail Patrick (Stage Door)

Mary Nash (Easy Living)

Gale Sondergaard (The Life of Emile Zola)

Constance Collier (Stage Door)

Alice Brady (In Old Chicago)

Since Dita Parlo’s Elsa appears on the screen so little in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece Grand Illusion, my choice may appear frivolous – a brazen attempt to shoehorn in an actor I admire.  While my overall admiration for Parlo’s skills may have influenced my decision, it did not determine it.  Yes, she has a relatively small role, but what she does in that limited time is so heartfelt and convincing that, for me, it’s an obvious choice.

In the last third of the picture, after the pair of French prisoners of war escape from the German POW camp, we meet a woman who has to bear the true cost of war on an intensely personal level.  Elsa’s husband and brothers have died leaving her to take care of the isolated family farm and raise her child alone.  When Maréchal and Rosenthal stumble into her life she has already mourned.  There is no more time for frivolous emotion and she has resigned herself to her fate without a word of complaint, as though complaint could change anything.  With this fact in mind, she quietly goes through the motions of life, resolved to raise her child as best as she can in her war-scarred home.

Maréchal, though, gives her a glimpse of happiness and Parlo does a wonderful job of gradually letting down Elsa’s guard as she allows the French officer into her life and her heart.  She knows his foreign language and uniform makes him the enemy, she knows his countrymen killed her men, but she doesn’t have the emotional energy to hate any more than she has the energy to mourn anymore.  Blind hatred won’t bring back her loved ones; it was, after all, blind hate that caused their deaths in the first place.  Just as she abandoned overt sentimentality for the dead, she also rejected unnecessary antipathy.  This pragmatic approach to human relationships grants her the ability to love again, something the nations of Europe were not able to translate diplomatically after the First World War leading to another disastrous war, exactly as Renoir feared.

Of course she knows it can’t last.  Maréchal has to leave her or he will be arrested.  This awareness tinges her rare smiles with a wary fatalism.  Yes, Maréchal promises to return after the war, but does she believe him?  Does he believe himself?  When he leaves her, alone on the farm with her child, she probably knows she will never see him again, but accepts the fleeting joy he brought her.  It is better to enjoy the spurts of good time life gives, than to dwell on that which is lost.

Dita Parlo is able to temper her natural vulnerability for a much stronger, weather-beaten woman.  Elsa may have been sweet-natured and sensitive at one time, but it would be safe to assume those traits were beaten down with each successive death notice along with the day-to-day burden of caring for a child and farm.  Elsa’s story is written on her face; there are no histrionics or award-obvious monologues.  It’s all Dita Parlo’s subtle performance which turned a small part into a major character, both narratively and thematically.  It’s the kind of performance that is easily overlooked, but deserves to be remembered and appreciated.

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Best Pictures of 1937 (#3) – Grand Illusion

Apologies for the long gap in the 1937 countdown.  I spent the Thanksgiving weekend in Big Bear playing in the snow, gorging on turkey, and curling up in front of roaring fires with a book.  Despite all that fun, there was unexpectedly no internet connection.  I didn’t get back until last night, so my overview of 1937 can continue.  I hope everyone here in the U.S. had a great Thanksgiving and everyone else just had an all around great day.  Now for the third best movie of 1937:

Grand Illusion

(aka La Grande Illusion)

(France)

Director, Jean Renoir; Screenplay, Charles Spaak & Jean Renoir; Producers, Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer; Cinematography, Christian Matras; Original Music, Joseph Kosma; Editor, Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; Production Design Eugene Lourié; Costume Design, René Decrais

Cast: Jean Gabin (Lt. Maréchal), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. De Boeldieu), Marcel Dalio (Lt. Rosenthal), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Dita Parlo (Elsa)

I always cringe when I hear Jean Renoir’s classic Grand Illusion described as an anti-war film.  Yes, an anti-war message is part of it, but identifying it as such misses the larger point.  Renoir doesn’t necessarily see war as the problem; war is merely a symptom – albeit a horrendous symptom – of a more basic problem: the inability of people to identify with and embrace people who are different from them.  It sounds so basic and, frankly, trite when it’s put in such a basic and crude way, but Renoir was a master so he handles the message more artfully.  That’s why we go see the movies of directors like Renoir rather than read stuff like this.

Grand Illusion is an impassioned plea for empathy – brotherhood if you will excuse the corny, though appropriate phrase – across social, religious, national, and class boundaries as the world stumbled almost inevitably toward war in 1937.  Renoir observed that the lessons Europeans should have learned after the Great War went ignored and that failure would lead to disaster.  It would not be long until his apprehension would prove justified.

To make his point, Renoir set the events in and among French, English, and Russian prisoners of war in Germany sometime during the First World War.  Captured together are Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay).  The two officers join other French prisoners of war and, in the grand tradition of military POWs, hatch one escape plot after another.  The seemingly obvious divisions among prisoners in the camps melt away.  Aristocratic Boeldieu is welcome along with the Jewish Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and the working class Maréchal.  There is nothing remarkable in suggesting that people will find commonality among themselves when in a life-threatening situation.  In this case, nationality is what bonds the men together.

But this is where Renoir elevates the material beyond a simple but effective message promoting cooperation and understanding.  A harmony of nationality isn’t what Renoir wants us to take away; national allegiances, after all, lead to the most horrific war to that date.  There are more social classifications with which people can identify.  Later, when many of the men are transferred to another camp, Boeldieu is immediately spotted by the commander of the camp Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim).  Rauffenstein sees a fellow aristocrat and, despite the fact that their respective nations are at war, tries to form a bond with the French prisoner.  Rauffenstein embraces Boeldieu not because he’s such a great guy but because he is part of the same dying European aristocracy.  He believes they should have a bond stronger than Boeldieu has with his fellow countrymen because he and the German officer are part of a long and noble tradition that transcends national lines, forced to fight one another not due to any real animosity but because politicians in their countries have bungled matters.  The French officer, however, humors his German counterpart, looking for his opportunity to use their relationship to escape.

Boeldieu and Rauffenstein ponder their class bond

 

The relationship between Boeldieu and Rauffenstein could have signified the illusory lines that nationalism draws between people, but Renoir is just as put off by class divisions.  Class, like nation, artificially and arbitrarily distinguishes some at the expense of others.  It’s just another destructive hierarchy.  Also, Renoir identifies many competing identities and wonders when one trumps another.  For Rauffenstein class overshadows all else, but Boeldieu chooses nationality.  What makes one choice more correct than the other?  And if they are equally valid choices, what does that say about our almost blind allegiance to any one group?  We choose our allegiances not based on any natural or inevitable system, but based on what we perceive works best for us.  We make these irrational choices because they are easy; building bridges between and among differing groups is difficult, too difficult for most of us.  It’s easier to stake our claim (and, the implication is, our worth) to a national, class, racial, religious, sexual, philosophical, and/or political group.

Renoir isn’t cynical about the chances for trans-national understanding and cooperation.  In the heartfelt third act, Maréchal and Rosenthal escape into the cold German winter.  Rosenthal is injured during the escape, making the odds of reaching Switzerland marginal.  The French fugitives are taken in by a German widow Elsa (Dita Parlo) who lost her husband and brothers in the war, now working her isolated farm by herself.  Movie conventions tell us that a woman whose husband and brothers were killed in the war must initially, at least, hate or mistrust two enemy soldiers she finds on her property.  But Elsa is tired.  She’s tired of grieving and hating and she knows that these French officers didn’t make the war, any more than the men in her family did.  Maréchal and Rosenthal are victims as much as they were.  With quiet determination, Elsa nurses them back to health and, despite the language barrier, falls in love with Maréchal.  Renoir suggests that if we spend a little time with people we don’t understand, we will realize they aren’t quite so scary.

It’s a lesson Germany was ignoring in 1937 as the Nazi Party continued to consolidate power based on the exploitation of national, racial, and religious distinctions.  And it’s a lesson the world continues to ignore, whether it is the increasing intolerance of Muslims and illegal immigrants in the United States, the fanaticism of some Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu groups in Africa and Asia, the anti-gay witch hunts in places like Uganda and Jamaica, or the progressively tense standoff between the two Koreas.  Relations between peoples and nations are too often dictated by the ignorant and hysterical.  Renoir saw the future could only be saved by encouraging personal relationships across social boundaries.  These relationships would (and will) undercut the hysteria of sheltered nincompoops who visit their angst on the rest of us.  Unfortunately these people still drive the political and diplomatic narrative in this country (Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Senator-elect Rand Paul – it’s depressing how long this list could be).

Grand Illusion, then, is sadly still relevant.  As someone who has studied history for most of my adult life, I have to admit that it will always be relevant.  People never learn the lessons of the past and make the same goofy mistakes time after time.  Maybe we can get more people to watch this movie and others like it and get them to embrace its message.  We need more people on the side of sanity.

 

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Best Pictures of 1936 (6-10)

It is time to begin another annual consideration of the best movies and performances.  In order to move this project along and finish before 2019, it is necessary to condense the list a bit.  Numbers 6 through 10 of my choices for the best pictures of 1936 are below.  The top five will be coming later, along with best acting categories and the always challenging, sometimes controversial most overrated movie of the year.

 

6. The Only Son (Japan, Yasujio Ozu)

One of Ozu’s best about a mother who sacrifices everything for her son’s education only to be disappointed by his low level job.

 

7. Mayerling (France, Anatole Litvak)

If you know anything about royal scandals in European history, you probably know how this one turns out.  If not, this tragic tale of love between a disillusioned young prince (Charles Boyer) and a naïve young girl (Danielle Darrieux) in the Viennese court of the 19th century is sure to impress.

8. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (U.S., Frank Capra)

I love that Gary Cooper’s rube who inherits a fortune doesn’t turn out to be a total dingbat, the way the Clampetts in The Beverly Hillbillies were.  But his smarts can’t prepare him for all the dirty tricks waiting for him.

9. The Crime of M. Lange (France, Jean Renoir)

Trust me.  You’d have killed the guy too.

10.  The Charge of the Light Brigade (U.S., Michael Curtiz)

Loosely based on the Tennyson poem and historical events, this Errol Flynn-Olivia de Haviland picture is a gripping account of a colonial massacre in India, followed by a single-minded lust for revenge even in the face of almost certain death.

Next up:  Best Supporting Actor of 1936

 

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