A dangerous discovery: The University library has the entire Criterion Collection available to stream. Suddenly these quiet summer afternoons in the office seem like golden opportunities to revisit old favorites.
It’s too bad that Renoir’s Grand Illusion isn’t available through this service, because it’s the natural accompaniment to The Rules of the Game. Both films are about the fragility, or maybe the elasticity, of the conventions, taboos, and mores which govern civilized activities, whether social (in Rules of the Game) or political (in Grand Illusion). To live rigidly within those boundaries, like a cow keeping its wary distance from the electric fence, is to be doomed to dreariness: a frigid marriage, moronic jingoism. But to flagrantly transgress them is to risk chaos, alienation. The authentic life, then, is lived with one foot on either side of on an impossible and invisible line hidden beneath the snow, as seen at the end of Grand Illusion.
The Rules of the Game is an iron fist in a velvet glove. The main action takes place at a country estate, where a bunch of aristocrats are spending the weekend. On the surface it looks like a charming upstairs/downstairs melodramatic farce, with slamming doors, midnight rendezvous, stolen kisses, jealous husbands. But there’s a hard edge under the fizz. The party goes out for a hunt and Renoir subjects us to a relentless sequence of rabbit after rabbit after rabbit being shot dead in the dirt. And in the end, innocence itself lies down with them.
Renoir, famously, called The Rules of the Game a war movie, and indeed the alliances and enmities of the feckless aristocrats and territorial servants who populate the film are easily understood as metaphors for the pettinesses which were, in 1939, about to destroy a civilization.
All that, yes, but the movie’s no dirge; it’s French, and so is also filled with joy that literally makes me laugh out loud. And, far from least, this is the movie where one learns the proper method of making salade de pommes de terre. Crucial.