Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: The Rules of the Game (1939)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #4

Just earlier this week, a Vimeo video series called Every Frame a Painting examined how director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, The World's End) utilizes visual comedy better than most working directors today. As host Tony Zhou explains, Wright uses framing, lighting, montage, and movement to create visual jokes and prevent his films from losing their comedic momentum. Moreover, it highlights a fact that's often overlooked today: the vast majority of film comedies are visually indistinctive, relying mostly on the writing and acting to sell the jokes and letting the camera just sit and watch.

The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir's almost-lost 1939 masterpiece (it was restored in 1956), is an early example of how a dialogue-heavy comedy could be made visually engaging. Though Renoir cheekily proclaims in the film's opening titles that the film is a "fantasy" and is not a comedy-of-manners, the film concerns a collection of upper-class citizens and their servants, who gather at a country estate for a weekend. Over the course of the film, various couplings occur, secrets are revealed, and one character, Andre (Roland Toutain), meets an unfortunate fate.

At the time of its production, Renoir was coming off the dual international hits Grand Illusion and La Bete Humaine, and wanted to make a comedy-of-manners that addressed the tensions in Europe that would lead to World War II. It was roundly booed, and during the war, nearly lost forever when multiple prints - including the original negatives - were destroyed. Despite that early reputation, it now has the distinction of being the only film to have appeared in the top ten of every Sight & Sound decennial poll. A key reason for this is the way Renoir used visual space in interesting, innovative ways. But what exactly did he do?

More after the jump.

The most noticeable visual trick Renoir uses in this film is deep-focus photography. Deep-focus photography is a way of filming in which the both the background and foreground remain in focus, allowing the audience to see what's happening deep in the frame just as easily as what's happening at the forefront. At the time of the film's production, this was a rarely-used technique (Renoir had to order special lenses for this purpose), which automatically separated the film from many of its contemporaries.

The use of deep-focus photography, though, is not merely a visual gimmick. More importantly, it emphasizes the film's thematic content about the callousness of the upper classes in the lead-up to World War II. Many scenes are expansive, taking place in the wide-open grounds outside the house or inside the cavernous rooms of the estate. Any given frame will likely have more empty space than filler, and as a result it makes the characters seem dwarfed by their surroundings. By framing scenes in this manner, Renoir is able to visually cue the viewers that the matters of these characters are minor compared to what's looming on the horizon. And the danger is always present: with so much of the frame in focus, but often empty, there's a feeling that tragedy is lurking just off-screen, an unseen specter slowly closing in on the gathering.

It's important to distinguish that "comedy-of-manners" doesn't mean the film is built on jokes and punchlines, as most comedies are. A comedy-of-manners is built largely on the writing and the acting, with the implied condition that the audience will understand the social conventions that are being farcically subverted. If nothing else, a comedy-of-manners is driven by dramatic irony: that is, the audience being aware of things that the characters are not. In essence, what drives the film's humor is our knowledge of each character's misbehavior and secrets and their obliviousness to each other.

Renoir is able to visually engage this facet of the film as well in a way that makes the very theatrical story feel more cinematic. He accomplishes this by having the camera consistently move in many scenes, rather than placing it in a single spot and shooting. By doing this, he creates the effect that the audience is an unseen, omniscient member of the party. The audience is made a more active participant in the story, and it allows us to engage more with the story unfolding onscreen and become involved in the characters' various shenanigans.

Ultimately, there's a reason that The Rules of the Game only came to be seen as a masterpiece years after its initial release: it was ahead of its time. The themes of pre-war anxiety work better in the post-war world, when they can't be shirked off as an overreaction or paranoia. And it gives the film's final line, "everyone has their reasons," a more potent dose of objective humanism. But it was also ahead of its time in how it visually engaged the audience with the action onscreen. Renoir made a comedy where the visuals complemented the humor of the story, rather than standing out of the way.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: The Mirror (1974)

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