The Rules of the Game (1939)

The Rules of the Game (“La regle du jeu”)rules-of-the-game poster
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Jean Renoir and Carl Koch
1939/France
Nouvelles Éditions de Films (NEF)

Repeat viewing/Criterion Collection DVD
#138 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Octave: I want to disappear down a hole.

Robert de la Cheyniest: Why’s that?

Octave: So I no longer have to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong.

I’ve been putting off writing this review because I just can’t find the words to describe how I feel about this film, which I consider to be one of the supreme masterpieces of cinema.

Rules of the Game 3

André Jurieux is welcomed as a hero after he has crossed the Atlantic solo in less than 24 hours.  He is despondent, however, because his muse Christine de la Cheyniest did not meet him on arrival.  She is at home with her husband Robert (Dalio) listening to the event on the radio.  Christine considers André a friend, though her maid Lisette says friendship with a man is impossible.  When Robert learns that the relationship is innocent he starts to feel guilty about his own affair with Genevieve and tries to break it off.  André’s friend Octave (Renoir) tries to console the suicidal pilot and finally convinces Christine and Robert to invite him to their country estate.  Genevieve also coerces Robert into inviting her.

Rules of the Game 1

Lisette is married to the De la Cheyniest country gamekeeper Shumacher (Gaston Modot), a situation that suits her as long as they are separated by hundreds of miles and she is free for hanky-panky.  Shortly after arrival, Robert meets poacher Marceau (Carette) and wants to hire him to rid the estate of rabbits.  But Marceau has long dreamed of becoming a domestic and Robert complies by taking him on as part of the house staff.  Marceau soon begins a flirtation with Lisette, enraging the jealous Shumacher who chases him for the remainder of the film, sometimes at gun point.

rules of the game 2

The country visit includes two notable events, a formal hunt and a costume party including a kind of talent show.  During the hunt, Nora spies Robert giving an affectionate good-bye kiss to Genevieve.  She had been oblivious of the affair, which was common knowledge to everyone else, and now believes her entire marriage has been based on a lie.  She lashes out during the party by selecting a random guest for a tryst of her own.  A farcical chase and general mayhem centering on the upstairs and downstairs lovers ultimately ends in tragedy.

rules of the game 3

 

Robert refers to Octave as a “dangerous poet” and this is an apt description of Renoir especially in this savage examination of French society between the wars.  It is a world where mechanical birds are treasured and real birds are shot, true love is punished and infidelity exalted, and crimes are overlooked to preserve the peace.  I see Jurieux as a stand in for Czechoslovakia, a sacrificial lamb led to the altar to allow the status quo to persist for a few days longer.  All this is hidden beneath the surface in a farce worthy of Moliere.

The flm making is exquisite..  Who can ever forget the barbaric hunt, a masterpiece of montage editting, ending in the extended shot of the quivering rabbit?  The entertainment at the party is equally mesmerizing.  I love the shot of Dalio showing off his huge triumphant “music box” as his world disintegrates around him.

I can and have watched this over and over with exactly the same interest, noticing something new each time.  Is that not the definition of a classic?

Re-release trailer

 

La Bête Humaine (1938)

La Bête Humaine La Bete Humaine Poster
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Jean Renoir and Denise Leblond (both uncredited) from the novel by Emile Zola
1938/France
Paris Film

Repeat viewing

 

Jacques Lantier: I can’t go on. I can’t go on.

This adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel may be my least favorite of Jean Renoir’s films.  It is great filmmaking nonetheless.

Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) is a highly competent train driver, who is a little in love with the steam engine that he has named “Lison”.  He travels the rails with a down-to-earth stoker, Pecquex (Julien Carette).  Poor Jacques suffers mightily from terrifying blackouts ending in homicidal fits. These he attributes to hereditary “alcohol poisoning” with which he has been cursed by generations of his alcoholic ancestors.

bete-humaine-1938-05-g

Roubaud (the excellent Fernand Ledoux) is the stationmaster at one of the stops on Jacques’ route.  He dotes on his young beautiful wife Séverine (Simone Simon) but is pathologically jealous and abusive toward her.  He gets the idea (probably well-founded) that Séverine has had an affair with railroad boss Grandmorin and decides to make his wife an accomplice in his murder to “bind her to him”.

bete-humaine-1938-07-g1

The two execute the plan on a train and Jacques witnesses them returning to their compartment.  Séverine uses her feminine charms to secure Jacques’ silence and their relationship rapidly develops into something more, ending in tragedy for all concerned. With Renoir as a fall guy.

La Bete Humaine 1

While I find that La Bête Humaine lacks the humanism I love in Renoir’s films, it grew on me quite a bit on this viewing.  Previously I thought that the entire plot hinged on the “alcohol poisoning” construct which kind of lets everyone off the hook.  This time I saw the film as more of a Double Indemnity-type story, something I doubt Zola intended but could have been on Renoir’s mind.  Certainly Séverine is a classic femme fatale.  Simone Simon, already looking like a kitten well before Cat People, portrays her to perfection.

Gabin brought Zola’s novel to Renoir because he wanted to drive a train, and the railroad scenes are the true glory of the picture.   They are dynamic and beautifully shot.  Needless to say, for me Gabin can do no wrong as an actor.

La Bête Humaine was reportedly the most financially successful of Renoir’s 1930’s films. Fritz Lang modernized and remade the story in 1954 as Human Desire with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame.

Trailer

Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion (“La grande illusion”) (1937)Grand Illusion Poster
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak
1937/France
Réalisation d’art cinématographique (RAC)

Repeat viewing
#106 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDb users say 8.1/10; I say 10/10

 

Capt. von Rauffenstein: Boeldieu, I don’t know who will win this war, but whatever the outcome, it will mean the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boeldieus.

I consider Jean Renoir’s film about man’s humanity to man during World War I to be a masterpiece – full stop.  How lovely life would be if we could look at people in all their complexity the way Renoir does.

Aristocratic career officer Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and working class hero Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin) are shot down over Germany during an air reconnaissance run and taken to an officer’s prison camp.  There they bond with the officers quartered with them and work on a tunnel to escape.  The men enjoy many comforts thanks to food parcels shared with everyone by Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and put on an amateur theatrical. Just before they can put their escape plan into effect, the men are all transferred to another camp.

Grand Illusion 1

Months later, after the two have repeatedly been caught trying to escape from several different camps, they are taken to be held in a heavily fortified and guarded castle.  There they meet again with the pilot who originally shot them down, the aristocrat Capt. von Rauffenstein, who has been injured during the war and is now commandant of the prison, a role he evidently loathes.  Von Rauffenstein forms a special bond with de Boeldieu, with whom he shares a common class and profession.  The rest of the film tells the story of a final escape planned by de Boldieu, Marechal and Rosenthal from the supposedly escape-proof castle.  With Julien Carette as an ex-music hall performer prisoner and Dita Parlo as a kind German farm woman.

Grand Illusion 2

The story makes this sound something like The Great Escape.  This is only superficially true.  The real subject of the film is the brotherhood of man.  Renoir takes a deep look at the relationships between his characters and finds them, both French and German, to be basically good.  When enemies in war relate to each other on an individual level, they find they are the same and become friends.  The grand illusion is that borders divide us.  But Renoir knows that the illusion creates war.  He specifically points out in a couple of different places that characters are deluded when they believe the war will end quickly or that this war can prevent future wars.

Grand Illusion 4I may be making this movie sound preachy.  Renoir avoids that entirely and treats his material with a lot of humor.  His interest is in the individual.  One of the most moving scenes in the film comes during the amateur theatrical at the first camp.  A group of English soldiers is performing in drag to an audience of French prisoners and their German guards.  Marechal bursts on to the stage to announce that the French have retaken one of their forts.  The audience spontaneously begins singing “La Marseillaise”, led by one of the British officers wearing a dress, his wig now removed.

There is quite a similar scene in Casablanca, when the French at Rick’s break out in “La Marseillaise.  In the Hollywood film, the scene is patriotic and theatrical.  Renoir’s scene is more moving to me, because he makes it so real and unexpected.
Grand Illusion 2

This film began my great love affair with Jean Gabin. His natural understated performance is a wonder in a uniformly outstanding cast.  Gabin’s performance is often contrasted with Pierre Fresnay as illustrating the difference between a screen actor and a more mannered stage actor. I think Fresnay does not get enough credit.  He perfectly captures the public manners of the aristocrat he is playing.  Eric von Stroheim’s German accent is execrable but his performance is very touching.  This time through I paid particular attention to Joseph Kosma’s fantastic score which only adds to the riches of the production.

Grand Illusion was the first foreign language film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

75th Anniversary Restoration Trailer

 

Mayerling (1936)

MayerlingMayerling Poster
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Written by Marcel Archard, Joseph Kessel and Irma von Cubed based on a novel by Claude Anet
1936/France
Nero Films

First viewing

 

The Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia (21 August 1858 – 30 January 1889) was the son and heir of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth of Austria. His death, apparently through suicide, along with that of his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at his Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889 made international headlines, fueled international conspiracy rumours and ultimately may have sealed the long-term fate of the Habsburg monarchy.

This romantic biopic made an international star out of Charles Boyer and features an exquisite performance by the 19-year-old Danielle Darrieux.

Progressive-thinking Archduke Rudolf is surrounded by spies sent by his enemies in the conservative Hapsburg monarchy.  He attempts to assuage his boredom in debauchery but that is scant comfort.  One day at an amusement park, he meets 17-year-old Maria Vetsera and is captivated by her innocence.  She develops a grand passion for him and they meet secretly until the Emperor calls an end to their tryst.  Their fate may have changed history.

Mayerling 1

I liked this a lot.  Boyer and Darrieux also played the leads in one of my favorite films, The Earrings of Madame de … (1953), and are equally fine here.  Darrieux is the kind of actress that can express volumes with her eyes and was enchanting as a girl in the throes of first love. Boyer may never have been handsomer.  The film contains many good set pieces such as the scene at the ballet and a royal gala ball.  Litvak keeps his camera moving delightfully.  Recommended.

Extract – Eyes meeting at the ballet

 

César (1936)

CesárCesar Poster
Directed by Marcel Pagnol
Written by Marcel Pagnol
1936/France
Les Films Marcel Pagnol

First viewing

 

“The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be.” ― Marcel Pagnol

I could have sworn I had seen the entire Fanny Trilogy before but it turns out I had only seen the first two installments.  This third installment cements the trilogy in my estimation as the best film cycle ever.  All three films go on my own personal “see before you die” recommendation list.

Twenty years have passed since the events that took place in Fanny (1932).  Fanny’s much-older husband Honoré Panisse is on his deathbed making his last confession (a wonderfully amusing scene).  The priest tells him that he should tell the boy, Cesariot, whom he has raised as his son, that he is not the biological father.  Panisse cannot bring himself to do this but leaves it for Fanny to do after he dies.  Fanny obeys and tells the boy that César’s son Marius (Pierre Fresnay) is his father and about her passion for Marius.

Cesariot is initially appalled at the revelation and further disturbed when his grandfather César (Raimu) tells him about the rift which has caused father and son not to speak for 15 years.  Cesariot makes an incognito visit to Toulon where Marius owns a garage but more trash talk about his father sends him away.  All this paves the way to one of the most glorious endings in film history – all the more moving because it was so hard-won.

Cesar 1

This is the only film in the trilogy that was directed by Pagnol himself.  Oddly, Pagnol, who wrote the stage plays, is the only director of the bunch to open up the action to exteriors. The dialogue, as always, is very literate yet unforced.  We really feel that we know these people well.  There are a number of classic comedy set pieces – Honorés confession, the discourse on aperetifs and the stone in the hat gag.  But it is the “confession” scene of Fanny and Marius’ confrontation with César that stand out as master classes in acting.

What prevents these films from being well-written melodramas is the fierce family love that pervades them.  The preservation of the extended family is the motivating force of all the characters and even when this requires sacrifice and tears the family will go on.

The Lower Depths (1936)

The Lower Depths (“Les bas-fonds”)Lower Depths Poster
Directed by Jean Renoir
1936/France
Written by Yevgeni Zamyatin, Jacques Companéez,Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak based on a play by Maxim Gorky
Films Albatros
Repeat viewing

 

“If it is true that only misfortune can awaken a man’s soul, it is a bitter truth, one that is hard to hear and accept, and it is only natural that many people deny it and say it is better for a man to live on in a trance than to wake up to torture.” ― Maxim Gorky

In this film, Jean Renoir displays all the skill that would make Grand Illusion a masterpiece the following year.  It also contains one of my favorite performances by Jean Gabin.

The paths of many different people intersect at a Russian flophouse run by a hypocritical old scoundrel and his young wife, Vassilissa (Suzi Prim).  Pepel, a thief, (Jean Gabin) had been dallying with the wife but now is in love with her virtuous younger sister, Natasha. Pepel meets a dissolute baron (Louis Jouvet) during a robbery attempt on the last night the baron is to own his house.  The baron goes to live at the flophouse and he and the thief become fast friends.  Other denizens of “the lower depths” include a talented actor in the final stages of alcholism, a woman in despair over lost love, a cobbler, a wise old man, etc.  All these people have their dreams and delusions.

Pepel believes that only if Natasha goes away with him can he escape the moral and physical squalor of his existence.  But the jealous and vindictive Vassilissa, who has treated her sister as a household slave, will have something to say about that …

Lower Depths 2

While this is not the equal of Grand Illusion or Rules of the Game, it approaches those great films in tone and structure.  Renoir has made a humanistic and somewhat optimistic place from Gorky’s miserable slum.  The interplay between the relaxed proletarian Gabin and the mannered Jouvet is a marvel to behold and the rest of the cast, while having less to do, is accomplished.  The deep-focus cinematography, moving camera, and careful blocking featured in Grand Illusion are present here in full force as is an underlying interest in class and how class relationships change as circumstances do.  Highly recommended. Gabin fans should not be sure not miss his performance here.

Akira Kurosawa remade the Gorky play as The Lower Depths (“Donzoko”) in 1957 with Toshiro Mifune in the Gabin role.  It is a much darker and grittier story in Kurosawa’s hands and, I read, is closer to the original play.

 

Princess Tam-Tam (1935)

Princess Tam-Tamprincesse-tam-tam poster
Edmond T. Gréville
1935/France
Productions Arys

First viewing

 

“. . . I improvised, crazed by the music. . . . Even my teeth and eyes burned with fever. Each time I leaped I seemed to touch the sky and when I regained earth it seemed to be mine alone.” — Josephine Baker

I enjoyed Josephine Baker’s performance in this otherwise lackluster movie.

Max is a celebrated novelist suffering from writer’s block who is being nagged at ceaselessly by his wife.  He and his partner decide to escape to Tunisia for inspiration and respite.  There they meet the beggar Alwina (Josephine Baker).  They take the “wild” free-spirited woman into their villa where they begin to “civilize” her.  Meanwhile, Max’s wife has begun a flirtation with a maharaja in Paris.  Max introduces to Alwina to Parisian society as Princess Tam-Tam to make his wife jealous.  But Alwina can’t resist the urge to dance whenever drums begin to beat …

Princess Tam-Tam 1

Josephine Baker sings two songs beautifully and has a couple of dance numbers.  The last of these is as part of a relatively clunky Busby Berkeley-esque routine.  These musical interludes are the main reasons to watch.  The actors never catch fire and the story is pretty silly.

Clip – “Ahé!  la Conga”

 

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (“Le crime de Monsieur Lange”)crime of monsieur lange poster
Directed by Jean Renoir
1936/France
Films Óberon

Repeat viewing

 

“A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it up and makes it again.” ― Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir made three films in 1936.  This one is a well-acted political piece with witty dialogue by the great Jacques Prévert, better known for his work with Marcel Carne, including in Children of Paradise.

It is 1901.  Hapless Amédéé Lange (René Lefévre – Le Million) and his girlfriend Valentine (Florelle) are taken to an inn near the Belgian border, which they hope to cross in the morning.  The patrons of the inn soon recognize Lange as a wanted murderer.  Valentine says they can turn him in if they still want to after hearing his story.

Lange worked for a debt-ridden publishing house owned by the crooked, lecherous Batala (Jules Berry).  In his spare time, he wrote a kind of Western/fantasy serial called “Arizona Jim”.  Batala tricks Lange into signing over the rights and then uses the serial to advertise a quack medicine.  Batala also leeches money from anyone gullible enough to give it to him and seduces and/or rapes innocent girls.

Finally Batala’s debts catch up with him and he feels forced to leave town.  He is believed dead after a train wreck that left many unidentifiable victims.  The workers at the publishing house form a cooperative with the support of an idealistic creditor.  “Arizona Jim” is a big hit and everyone is happy.  Then Batala reappears on the scene.

crime_de_monsieur_lange 1

The movie is directed with a very light hand despite its heavy sounding plot.  It is clearly a polemic in support of a worker’s revolution, however.  So some of the subtlety and humanism characteristic of Renoir is absent in order to make its villain thoroughly bad. Nonetheless, I would rate this in the top tier of Renoir’s films.  The dialogue is thoroughly enjoyable and the acting is very good, particularly that of Berry who makes a charming but despicable villain.

The film is not easily available on DVD in the U.S.  I watched it on Amazon Watch Instant.

 

Diabolique (1955)

Diabolique (“Les diaboliques”)diabolique_poster
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
1955/France
Film Sonor/Vera Films

Repeat viewing
#272 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Alfred Fichet, le commissaire: The keys in the pool, the husband in the morgue! You dream too much about water in this house!

It is good to know as little as possible about this diabolical noir thriller before seeing it for the first time!  Patrons were not admitted to theaters after the movie started and it ends with a plea for the audience not to reveal the ending.  Far be it from me to break a promise.

The setting is a seedy boarding school in a Paris suburb, where all the main characters work.  The owner is Christina Delassalle, a delicate Argentinian played by Vera Clouzot. She is dominated and abused by her sadistic, stingy husband Michel (Paul Meurisse). Lately, Michel has taken to beating his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) as well.  The two women decide they have had enough.  With Charles Vanel as a retired police commissioner.

Diabolique 1

The opening credits play over a shot of the scummy swimming pool at the school and establish the atmosphere of disgust and dread that pervades this excellent film.  Clouzot is a master at manipulating audience emotion and horror is right up his alley.  All the performances are spot on.  The film is not quite as effective on a second viewing when the surprises have been revealed.  Highly recommended.

Trailer (genius!)

 

Zouzou (1934)

ZouzouZouzou Poster
Directed by Marc Allégret
1934/France
Les Films H. Roussillon/Productions Arys

First viewing

 

Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest… beautiful, no. Amusing, yes. — Josephine Baker

Zouzou (Josephine Baker) and Jean (Jean Gabin) performed in the circus as “twins” as children and grew up as brother and sister.  Zouzou is in love with Jean.  When he is falsely arrested, she enters show business to get the money to defend him.  Will Jean see the light?

Zouzou 2

This is the French equivalent of a backstage musical and very charming, if not as polished as a Hollywood production.  I have read about Josephine Baker for years and was excited to be able to see her in something.  Jean Gabin is a major heart throb of mine and it was nice to see him in a different kind of role and singing a bit no less!

Jean Gabin sings “Viens Fifine”

Josephine Baker sings “Haiti”