Monday 4 December 2017

From the Archive - Some old notes on two films by Jean Renoir BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING (1932) & THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939)

Editor's NoteSome more notes below which trace back to the days when Film Alert was a weekly email recording some thoughts about films coming up on TV, including cable TV which at the time was a medium almost entirely ignored by the newspapers. I haven't attempted to bring them up to date or include notes that might correct mistakes or other matters. Both films are readily available on DVD but the days of yore when SBS or World Movies showed such titles are, regrettably, long gone.
Boudu Saved From Drowning (Jean Renoir, France 1932, 80 minutes) Here’s one of the reasons why Renoir is and probably always will be the director who invokes the greatest sighs of contented pleasure. In a career lasting almost fifty years he made at least a dozen masterpieces and nothing that isn’t worth endless examinations. When he made films in the early thirties he did so against a background of poor technical conditions thus things like the sound on his films of this time are a bit dodgy and the dialogue indistinct. But no matter. There has never been a more anarchic triumph than this story of a tramp rescued from a river and brought home to wreak havoc on middle-class manners and morals. He becomes, in the succinct words of Tony Rayns in the Time Out Film Guide, “the most morally, socially, sexually and philosophically disruptive houseguest of all time”.
Michel Simon who plays Boudu had been in several of Renoir’s films prior to this but never to such effect. His performance is still discussed and it seems to have caused people to speculate for generations since as to where Michel Simon’s character stopped and Boudu’s started. He did a variation on it in Jean Vigo’s sublime L’Atalante which only added to the wild man mystique. As he grew older Simon’s face, never pretty or handsome, degenerated further into a mass of flabby jowls, endless expressive and ultimately a little sad. His mouth always seemed to have a slight droop and overhang as well that assisted the idea/image of a man whose visage showed all of the life it had lived. His voice had a gravelly charm all its own. I was once looking at a postcard of a grotesque caricature of Simon and the young Frenchman next to me, without knowing who it was, said simply “Hmm. An old-fashioned Frenchman”.
If World Movies had to choose a Renoir to include in its 25 movies to see before you die then this is close to the best. I would have chosen La Crime de M. Lange but you can’t have everything. As Kerry Packer once famously said to a journalist complaining about the football coverage on his Channel 9: “Do you own a television station? No? Well I do!”
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, France, 1939, 115 minutes) I’ve already primed you about this one. It’s the second of the twenty-five films you should see before you die being presented by Andrew Urban on World Movies. Then again a person must be very old if there are only these 25 movies left to track down and what have they been watching. The last time I saw Renoir’s masterpiece was on the beautifully restored French DVD, with English subtitles, that came out several years ago now. I reviewed the DVD for Senses of Cinema and if you want to look up the review you can find it if you click here.
This is a film which had an extraordinarily troubled history before it came to be accepted as the masterpiece it is. The first audience reactions caused Renoir to cut the film, quite savagely in fact, and then it simply disappeared from view. The cutting was done in the face of what Renoir called “a kind of loathing…. the public as a whole regarded (the film) as a personal insult” Renoir goes on to record how: “at every session I attended I could feel the unanimous disapproval of the audience. I tried to save the film by shortening it, and to start with I cut the scenes in which I myself played too large a part, as though I were ashamed, after this rebuff, of showing myself on the screen. But it was useless. The film was dropped, having become ‘too demoralizing'”
So began the journey of La Règle du Jeu into obscurity. It lay there for more than twenty years – an inert work known to few. All along it had its champions. Prior to his death in 1958, André Bazin in his book on Renoir, published only posthumously in 1971, called it the director’s “masterpiece” and “a work that should be seen again and again because it is a work that reveals itself only gradually to the spectator” By 1962 it featured high up Sight and Sound’s poll of the Ten Best Films of all time.
If you have never seen it then here’s a chance to enjoy a film in which many hearts are broken, many worlds are shattered and a society is put under the microscope by a director whose love for his fellow men and their foibles was deeply ingrained. But that didn’t stop him casting a cool eye on that society of wealth, privilege and self-gratification. Events proved that it was to be a society that would shortly disappear. That makes the film even more poignant today. If you get a chance to watch the DVD don’t neglect to watch the wonderful critical appreciation of by Jean Douchet which is on the disk as an extra.
One interesting thing about the film is that it is still discussed and written about at great length. Its contemporaneity knows no bounds. During our trip to Paris last year the wonderful writer Louis Skorecki, who contributes a brilliant column to Liberation about films on TV, reported how only recently the contemporary director Jean-Claude Brisseau had sat him down and demonstrated how Renoir, and the film, were anti-semitic!* Amazing. Don’t miss it.

* …and for more on Renoir I suggest you read David Hare’s report on Bertrand Tavernier’s mammoth survey of the French Cinema which you can find if you click here.  ... and for a note on the master's greatest film you can click here.

Renoir in the role of Octave inLa Regle du Jeu

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