weekends in the country
by Douglas Messerli
Jean Renoir and Carl Koch (writers), Jean Renoir (director) Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) / 1939
Julian Fellowes (writer, based on an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban), Robert Altman (director) Gosford Park / 2001
Over the years since its first and evidently disastrous showing in France in 1939, Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) has received extensive commentary, particularly concerning its masterful mix of genres—farcical comedy, soap opera, drama, love story, political documentation, and social satire—which function together not as pastiche as in many postmodern works, but as a shifting, improvisational entity that allows very few moments of viewer disinterest. The farcical elements of this fable—the various affairs between the wealthy La Chesnayes, wife Christine and husband Robert, the former of whom has had a recent dalliance with the heroic Alan Bates aviator André Jurieu and the latter of whom is trying to end his long time affair with Geneviève de Marras—serve as ridiculous counterpoint to various other enamoring actions of servants and guests at Christine and Robert’s weekend chateau-party for their friends—and enemies. As in the Beaumarchais, Marivaux, Musset and Molière comedies which inspired Renoir’s script, the serving-class characters parallel the bedroom antics of their masters—although in this work no one seems to be able to make love in a bedroom but must find various public rooms, nooks and corners of the chateau to carry on their affairs.
Lisette, Christine’s chambermaid, is married to the chateau’s gamekeeper, Edouard Schumacher, but openly flirts with Octave (the beloved family friend played by Jean Renoir) and the newly hired Marceau (former poacher now hired on a whim by Robert to serve on the staff). Part of the great joy of this cinematic masterpiece is the insanity of these figures and others as they rush about the chateau, camera zooming after them, in chase of one another, lover running after lover, husbands in chase of wives and suitors both.
Renoir, however, has deeper issues up his sleeve, so to speak. Particularly through his presentation of the always ready-to-be-bored party guests and their meaningless activities— from the silly amateur theatrical presentations of brief musical renditions of Tyrolian operettas (including a singing bear, Octave, who later can find no one to help him out of his costume), a skeleton dance, and the brutally frank documentation of a shooting party’s indiscriminate massacre of every pheasant, rabbit, and quail that can be scared out of the woods by tree-pounding servants into easy killing-range—Renoir reveals through images alone the stupidity and violence at heart of this French society of wealth. As Europe stood at cliff’s edge, Le Règle du jeu demonstrated all too well, evidently, why France would be unable to defeat the German armies. The film was not only badly received, but caused an uproar upon its premiere, one theater patron even lighting a newspaper afire in hopes of burning the movie house to the ground. Other theaters planning to show the film were threatened and, after having been re-cut several times, the movie was ultimately banned on the grounds that it was bad for the morale of the country. It is a near-miracle that most of the lost footage was eventually recovered and the film rediscovered in the Venice Film Festival of 1959.
A great many critics, in fact, have seemed to suggest that the film’s unstated predictions foretold a kind passivity on the part of the French haute bourgeoisie that ultimately allowed some French citizens to readily accept the Vichy government. Octave’s remark early in the film has been quoted extensively: “You know, in this world there’s one thing that is terrible: that everyone has his reasons.”
Even earlier in the film, one of Renoir’s figures puts it quite bluntly, asking the audience outright, “What’s natural these days?”
Renoir’s work is significant because it brings these issues into focus, and although the director has no easy answers to his questions of moral consequence, the ultimate result of the ridiculous follies of the chateau’s inhabitants—the shooting death of the “hero” aviator André—says everything: meaningless violence will ultimately be accepted quite readily by this society.
Indeed, Renoir’s work is so beautifully textured and complex in its structure that the movie moves in many directions simultaneously. I am interested, however, in another perhaps less political issue—although an ultimately even more troubling issue concerning the “polis”—a concern embedded in Renoir’s title, “the rules of the game.”
The minute the guests begin to arrive at the La Chesnaye’s chateau Colinière, they begin talking of games: bridge, ping-pong and belote. Robert, the master of the house, is a collector of mechanical toys and other such gadgets, and the highlight of the theatrical productions is his presentation of his newest—and largest—acquisition to date: a room-size musical clock that features various doll-like figures performing instruments. Some of the most ridiculous moments in the movie, moreover, portray the nap and bedtime rituals of this group of supposed adults as they gather in the hallways to promenade back and forth, kissing each other goodnight, the males roughhousing like teenagers armed with pillows and other props. There is something almost painful in Renoir’s insistence upon our witnessing these child-like antics.
The most awful of the “entertainments” enjoyed by this group, however, are far more aggressive. The favorite game at Colinière is obviously gossip, a game that can be won only by the party being gossiped about admitting (or partially admitting) the facts. The camera almost drools over the various guests’ and servants’ salacious comments on the relationship between Madame La Chesnaye and André Jurieu until Christine blithely admits that the two have seen a great deal of each other and he has undertaken his voyage on her account. Later, upon accidentally spying her husband embracing Geneviève (an embrace, ironically, he attempts to deny her), Christine readily purports to have known of the affair, even convincing Geneviève of her knowledge and acceptance with an offer of open friendship. Even though she is an “outsider”—an Austrian and all that might suggest on the eve of World War II—she recognizes that the “rules” of this French game require that she not lose face.
Yet, unlike most of the other figures in
this game-playing universe, she is impetuous, desirous of breaking the “rules”
by taking up with almost anyone who will help. The actress playing this
Admitting her disappointment with her earthbound “hero,” Christine confides in her childhood friend, Octave, who also has secretly loved her all these years. After a long discussion, he agrees to take her away, but her maid convinces him that, with no source of money whatsoever, he also would not be a good match. He hands over his coat to Andre who rushes to his waiting heroine and to his destiny, death at the hands the jealous gamekeeper, Schumacher, convinced that the woman waiting in the greenhouse is his wife Lisette.
If we have some difficulty caring about the demise of the blandly dutiful André, we still recognize that his death signifies there is no escape from the confines of the highly-structured game-playing society. For in such a context, no other reality is possible. Robert covers up the murder with a simple lie, which Le Général salutes as evidence of his “class.” As Octave tells Christine: “Everyone lies: pharmaceutical fliers, the government, the radios, the movies, newspapers.”
All their games, indeed, are based on falsehoods. In such a world, no one dares to ask the obvious questions: Are hunters to whom their prey is forced into gunsight really hunters? Are these hideously amateur performances really worthy of such delirious applause? Are any of these individuals really attractive enough to warrant such amorous attentions? Is a weekend in the country truly an enjoyable event?
The parallel structures of master and servant, accordingly, make it quite clear that the class differences are not at the heart of this woeful tale of pre-World War II France. Indeed, the puppet-like “masters” must submit to the “realities” they have created every bit as much as the man downstairs shining their shoes.
Los Angeles, May 27, 2006
But here the similarities end, as Altman’s work meanders into various concerns from the relationship between the classes to comical jabs at a dying social fabric. Whereas Renoir’s film points up important social issues of his own time, Altman’s movie is a kind of nostalgically framed satire of a British institution that has long since passed, and in that fact the latter film, although beautifully directed, brilliantly acted, and enjoyable overall, loses most of its relevancy for viewers of the 21st century. One might almost ask what to make of this film, or, to turn the question around, why did Altman direct it? What did he mean to say to us?
I bring up these questions only because I so admire the technique of the film that I find it difficult to accept that Altman is merely presenting us an historically-based comic-tragedy about the collapse of the British empire—a collapse which the host believes has already taken place.
As in many of his films, Altman turns down the sound level of his upstairs and, particularly, his downstairs conversations (in this case, each actor was fitted with a portable microphone) so that we must attend with great concentration upon the overlapping dialogue of his characters, which, in turn, implies that the film is worth such acuity. For the most part what we discern through our attentiveness are a series of subtle interrelationships, sexual innuendos, and comic one-liners.
Maggie Smith’s unforgettable portrayal of Constance Trentham, who snobbishly vents her spleen to one and all, is almost worth all our patience. Her interchange with Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) is typical:
Constance: Tell me, how much longer are you going to go on making films?
Ivor: I suppose that rather depends on how much longer the public wants to see
Constance: It must be hard to know when it’s time to throw in the towel…. What
a pity about that last one of yours…what was it called? “The Dodger?”
Ivor: “The Lodger.”
Constance: “The Lodger.” It must be so disappointing when something just
flops like that.
As Ivor plays a series of songs during a game of bridge, she says, nearly under her breath, “What a lovely long repertoire,” and soon after discourages applause, “Please don’t encourage him.” At another point when Morris Weissman (Bob Ballaban) refuses to name the murderer in his next Charlie Chan movie because it will spoil it for the dinner guests, she quips: “Oh, none of us will see it.” Witty dialogue indeed!
The other guests, meanwhile, battle with their host, William McCordle (Michael Gambon), and with each other over various issues: Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) is fearful of being financially ruined by McCordle’s threat to pull out of a business deal; Constance is terrified that he may cut off her promised “lifetime” allowance; and Raymond Stockbridge (Charles Dance) is disgusted with his common-stock wife, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), who is also the subject of several of Lady Trentham’s barbs.
The quietly charged interchanges between Mrs. Wilson (the head of the serving staff, Helen Mirren) and Mrs. Croft (the head of the cooking staff, Eileen Atkins) are worthy of our attention, we realize, when later it is revealed that the two are sisters. Croft is unable to forgive Wilson for allowing her son to be “adopted” (in actuality, turned over to an orphanage by the dreadful host, William McCordle) while she has kept hers (also fathered by McCordle) only to have the child die.
The servants’ quarters are also the scene
of various sexual escapades, the most obvious of which concerns American film
producer Morris Weissman’s “gentleman,” Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), who, it
soon becomes apparent, is not a servant at all. Denton, possibly in a sexual
Obviously, in terms of dialogue there is a great deal to attend to. But again, one must ask, for what purpose? What should we make of this witty, deceitful crowd?
Altman is perhaps more successful in conveying—what many critics have recognized as one of his major themes—that with McCordle’s murder we are witnessing the symbolic death of the upper class. In his visual presentation of the servants gathering outside the doorway of the drawing room and in other spots throughout the house to overhear the Novello’s songs, we recognize that the performer may be despised by the figures for whom he directly performs, but he is loved by the servants. And in that fact we recognize their love of life, their thorough and open their enjoyment of music, dance, film and theater they will prevail just as the “ruling class” will ultimately fade away. Altman reveals this with some sense of nostalgia, for as disgusting as these societal figures are, unlike Denton and Novello himself, they are the “real” thing. Like Denton, who pretends to be a servant, Novello is an impersonator. To Morris’s question, “How do you manage to put up with these people?” Novello responds, “Well you forget, I make my living impersonating them.”
Similarly, ousted from her position as a servant, we recognize that Elsie, despite our admiration for her ability to create a new life, will perhaps also become a kind of impersonator, an actress who, as a native to Britain, can now “pretend” to be as British as Claudette Colbert (on the phone throughout much of the movie American Morris Weissman, in his search for an actress who sounds “British,” asks “What about Claudette Colbert. She’s British, isn’t she? Is she, like, affected or is she British?”).
In the year 2001—the date of Gosford Park’s premiere—one can only wonder, what does it all matter? In the context of the culturally diverse world of contemporary England, why should we necessarily care about the end of what Elsie describes as “toffee-nosed snobs.”
To focus on the issue of British class distinctions, I suggest, would miss the point. Although the tale is one of British society, the real issue of this film is not about a dying breed of high society, but the issue of servitude itself. McCordle, after all, is also an impersonator, a wealthy businessman who has married into royalty. Although he seemingly enjoys the superficial trappings of the landed gentry—money and fiddling with his guns—he is as trapped in his life as any of his servants. The “hard-hearted randy old sod,” who has impregnated dozens of women, is detested by his wife and daughter both; although he loves guns, he “can’t hit a barn door.” It is clear that his life in the country is a charade.
Similarly, the other “society” figures have sold their souls for money and position, and in so doing, have also bought themselves a kind slavery from which they cannot escape. The Stockbridges detest one another, Freddie Nesbitt is always near financial ruin, Lady Trentham is a penurious, bitter old woman, Isobel McCordle a jilted lover.
The other figures of this social prison may not have her “gift,” but they, like her, are without lives. Crying out in pain for the inability to admit her existence to her son, Mrs. Wilson is comforted by her sister and former foe, who hushes her: “Don’t cry, they’ll hear you.” With that Altman says it all. No release save death is possible in such a confining space.
The impersonators—loud, irritating, graceless as they are—are the only truly free beings. As Nesbitt bitterly comprehends, only “ruin” and its accompanying ostracization can free him. As opposed to the stasis of estate life, where he is told several times to keep his problems to himself, he realizes “when you’re ruined there’s so much do.” Obviously, he means he must take care of his affairs, but the statement also suggests a potentially larger engagement with the world. McCordle’s death may have saved Nesbitt from financial disaster, but it has also kept him within the bonds of internment, which he, like the others, must suffer in bored silence. In her inability to keep quiet about events, Elsie, banned from servitude, can now join the world at large. By leaving with those whom the society ostracizes, the crass, loud, ignorant director Weissman, the indiscriminate and selfish sensualist Denton, and the homosexual cinematic and musical imitator Novello, the young girl embraces life at its most morally corrupt—if you buy into the norms of the British gentry—but also at its fullest. In the world to which she is ended, she will finally be permitted, if she desires, to speak out.
In short, Altman’s focus in this excellent film is not on the death of the British upper class, but, like Renoir’s great masterpiece, concerns the slavery that any class or social distinction imposes on all. Altman’s Gosford Park, I would argue, like most of his other films, is a testament to his love and fear for Americans and a warning against the artificially social stratifications accompanying financial, educational, sexual, linguistic, and cultural differences.
Los Angeles, May 30, 2006
Reprinted from Douglas Messerli My Year 2006: Serving (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2008).