Well the Oscars just happened, and The Hurt Locker took best picture, along with a few other awards. And then there’s Green Zone
on Friday. The common denominator? War. It makes sense. We’re at war, after all. It doesn’t feel that way to me all the time, but we are at war nonetheless.
Generally speaking, countries at war make movies a lot like Green Zone
and, believe it or not, Inglorious Basterds
. They’re all power fantasies because they all suggest that one person’s story can somehow win a war. Don’t get me wrong, Avatar
and Inglorious Basterds
are great movies, and Tarantino’s movie takes the power fantasy element to a wildly self-conscious and self-aware level, but for my money, they don’t bite very deeply into war itself.
I’m not sure I’d want to watch a movie that really looks hard at war. The closes thing I’ve seen is the Russian film, Come and See
(1985), which left me traumatized for weeks.
So imagine a movie that takes on war by looking at the society that makes it possible. Now imagine it’s set in the French countryside. Now imagine it’s funny. Now imagine that the movie, upon its release, caused riots and gonvernment censure. Would you want to see that movie? Case in point: 1939’s The Rules of the Game
The story’s simple: a bunch of upper-class folks head off to the country to hang out and make time with each other -- but of course everyone loves the wrong person. That’s just the way things go when it comes to French melodrama. The Count loves his mistress, the aviator loves the Count’s wife, the fat funny guy loves the maid, and the Count’s wife doesn’t know who she loves.
So here’s your assignment: given the beautiful direction from Jean Renoir
, the laugh-out-loud funny lines, the silly set-pieces, and the vivacious acting, just what was it that made French audiences riot and the French government ban The Rules of the Game
? What is so disturbing about the movie?
There are obvious bits, the rabbit scene, where the upper-class characters go “hunting,” which, for them, means standing around shooting animals that their servants have scared into the open, but surely there must be more going on than your standard criticisms of class-based society.
Jean Renoir, who was heartbroken at the reception of his film, plays that fat, funny Octave, the emotional lynchpin of the movie, whose vitality and good humor endear him to us within moments of seeing him. Late in the film Octave remembers a moment from his childhood when he watched a hero perform to a huge audience. Octave, who craves that same connection with the audience, ends up performing to a dark, empty garden. Octave’s moment of recognition, when it becomes clear to him that the dreams he uses to keep himself going will die on cold stone, sits somewhere near the heart of this movie, and set up his moral dilemma at the climax of the movie.
With France about to go to war, the government considered the film to be a detriment to the country's morale. Another way of putting it might be to say that the movie is about the intricate layers of deception and self deception required to live in a world at war. With compassion and humor Jean Renoir outlines the rules of the game of getting through the day – whether you’re sitting at the table or serving to the table. What it takes is very funny – but it’s not very pretty.
Next week, we’re back to adventure, where I’ll tell you the secret origin of the sound of Indiana Jones’ revolver.
Check out last week's Movies that Changed My Life