Restored but still fresh 'Rules' is dazzling display of art at its best

The Baltimore Sun

In this world, there is one terrible thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons."

It's the most resonant line in all 20th-century art and entertainment. It's comic, tragic, dizzying in its combination of profundity and wit, and right at the center of Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game, which is all those things. The film's appearance in a dazzling restored print at the Senator is the movie event of the year. More great directors have based their careers on this swift (106-minute) cross-section of French society than any other film except Citizen Kane.

A disaster at its premiere, a lost film for two decades, the movie required two film restorers and Jean Renoir himself to bring it close to its original form in 1959. Only now can it be seen in the hair-raising brilliance it deserves, with this digitally reconstructed copy.

Seeing a "square"-shaped film like this in a palace like the Senator brings back the focus on human material that made many great directors view the old-sized screen as movies' magic format. Any Baltimorean who wants to support movie art and presentation at its pinnacle should visit the Senator at least once to see The Rules of the Game.

"Everybody has his reasons" applies here to the juggling act of lovable loser Octave (played by Jean Renoir) who bears obligations of friendship to both a Lindbergh-like aviation hero, Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain), and a quicksilver Parisian aristocrat, Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). With increasing desperation, all three love the Marquis' wife, Christine (Nora Gregor).

Telling ourselves we're sensitive or proud or righteous in our anger, we shy away from Renoir's great truth throughout our lives, whether dealing with romance, politics or family. But Renoir erects an electric tragicomedy around that insight, with characters who, like us, hide behind the shield of silence, the distraction of noise or the security of established patterns - rather than get to the bottom of our own impulses and feelings, or let anyone else see our real sins and virtues, or dare to sound another person's dark-and-light depths.

That's why watching this movie is an exhilarating, un-toppable experience. Even though as a social comedy it has inspired dozens of illustrious successors, from TV's Upstairs, Downstairs to Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001), it's a cuttingly personal work of art, speaking to the viewer the way a great painting or poem does, eye to eye and heart to heart.

What's most hopeful about the movie, despite its sad trajectory, is that Renoir believes that human beings can change, even during the protocol-heavy itinerary of a social getaway at the Marquis' country house. Octave has persuaded the Marquis to invite the aviator Andre for the extended weekend even though Andre has made a public spectacle of his adoration for the innocent Christine. The Marquis, moved by his wife's fidelity, decides to ditch his lover and prove his new selfless devotion to his spouse; Christine wants to uphold her marriage and believe in the possibility of an ardent friendship with a man; Andre hopes to sweep her off her feet like a knight of old, contrasting the Marquis' high-society swank with chivalric fervor. Octave, the facilitator, gets his one shot at honest passion and retreats from the fray.

No one acts stably; Renoir catches everyone in the embarrassing act of adult self-creation. And the coiling aristocratic farce is mirrored by the servants. The estate's groundsman and gamekeeper, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), eager to re-establish his marriage to Christine's vivacious maid, Lisette (Paulete Dubost), finds himself warring for her hand with a hated poacher, Marceau (Julien Carette), who finds work at the chateau as a bootblack.

The adage that comedy is tragedy happening to someone else has never found more elating or heart-rending expression than it does in this movie. At one point, Schumacher fires shots at his rival Marceau while another rhubarb explodes among Andre, the Marquis, the Marquis' former mistress and Christine, who has mistakenly assumed her husband is still philandering and has drunkenly given herself to an unctuous nonentity. The Marquis orders his head-servant to put an end to this farce, and the butler replies, "Which one?"

But the movie is astonishing because it's equally timely and timeless. Political comedian Lewis Black, in a recent concert, did five minutes on Vice President Dick Cheney's notorious quail hunt - and to Black's credit, he concentrated not so much on Cheney shooting his friend in the face but on the obscenity of calling shooting game that doesn't have a chance to escape "a hunt." Renoir turns his repulsion into 3 1/2 minutes of galvanizing cinema as rows of servants beat pheasants and rabbits out into the open so the partygoers can gun them down. In the eye of an artist like Renoir, the sight of a rabbit twitching in its death says more about man's unnaturalness toward Nature than the whole gory length of Apocalypto.

Right from the beginning, The Rules of the Game overflows with revelations not just about the way they lived then but about the way we live now. Andre, after matching Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic record to the acclaim of an adoring Gallic public, can't handle instant media celebrity. Octave notes that there's a tricky distance between a modern champion like Andre, who manages his feats in the air, and his everyday existence on the ground - as there is today with astronauts or with computer whizzes pulling off miracles in the ether. Meanwhile, the Marquis has a mania for toys that's every bit as rabid, albeit in a polite and aesthetic way, as that of the legions lining up for the latest video game box. He combines pride and humility with a sort of helpless enthusiasm as he unveils a huge mechanical organ. He suggests the ambiguous gains we enjoy and losses we endure when we submit to our mania for things.

Renoir doesn't let anyone off the hook - not the sincere but unreflective Andre, the touching yet too easily flummoxed Christine and certainly not Renoir himself as Octave, the kind of jolly fat guy who is too easily affable: every guy's pal and every woman's shoulder to cry on. (He comes on sexually only to maids like Lisette.)

It's Renoir's art that provides hope of salvation. His moviemaking bursts with the innovations demanded by his characters and dramas. His camera never stops moving while photographing the scenes in depth, so that we see all the ironies and heartbreaks of the unfolding farces and smash-ups. His dramaturgy never stops changing tones, so that even the silliest, most decadent strokes of the characters add brushstrokes or harmonies to his teeming composition of humanity. In the most hair-raising moments, a night of theatricals turns into a dance of death, in more ways than one. But The Rules of the Game remains, now and forever, a dance of life.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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