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

Commentary

December 08, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

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?"

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