This week, we’re diving head first into classic French cinema, with two films from very different genres, one a comic farce, the other a horror/suspense thriller, so very different films. This week’s films are:
Jean Renoir – The Rules of the Game (1939)
Henri-Georges Clouzot – Diabolique (1955)
I have seen both films once before, but I didn’t have a lot of clear memories of them, so I’m looking forward to digging in. I covered Renoir before when I looked at two versions of The Lower Depths, but I’ve never looked at Clouzot.
So let’s get into it.
The Rules of the Game (1939)
In this film, a famous pilot, Andre is invited to a country manor for a weekend away by the lord Le Chesnaye. One problem, the pilot is in love with the lord’s wife, Christine, and publicly declared his love on the radio after his last flight. Further complicating the scenario, Le Chesnaye is trying to break up with his long time mistress, Genevieve, who doesn’t want him to leave her. Mixed up in the middle is Octave, a confidant to both Andre and Christine, along with Lisette, Christine’s maid who’s happy to flirt with whoever she fancies, while married to Le Chesnaye’s gamekeeper, Shumacher.
If that sounds complicated, good, I did it some manner of justice. The film is essentially a comic farce, setting up a complex situation, and then having the whole thing go to hell all at once, and letting the audience watch the melee unfold. And that’s exactly the film we get here.
The film is directed by Jean Renoir, who is one of the best directors of all time, director of The Grand Illusion, and The Lower Depths among others. He also stars in the film as Octave, which was a habit of his in several of his films. This film consistently lands in the top 10 of the Sight and Sound magazine greatest films of all-time, which for many is considered the definitive list of great films. And for many, this is the greatest film of all time. I don’t think I would personally put it there, but I have to respect the opinions of scholars who have dedicated their lives to studying films.
There’s also a lot of history to this film. It came out in France in 1939, which if you are familiar with history, you know is quite a chaotic time in that part of the world. It was something of a failure when it came out, and was further banned by both the French government, and later the Nazi government once they took over. Renoir recut the film several times to try to improve it, and sections of it were feared lost after a bombing. However, in the late 1950s, the missing scenes were found, and the film was restored. This restored version from the Criterion Collection edition is the version I’m watching today.
The film is a look at French aristocracy, and how they live their lives. In a lot of stories like these, we get a particular perspective that gives us a side to root for or to relate to. But here, we don’t really get the anti-aristocracy side. Renoir just shows us what their lives are like, and then allows us to make our own conclusion about what to think.
And for me at least, I think Renoir does a great job of showing just how callous and unthinking these people are. There are some obvious moments, when Christine tells her husband that she trusts him completely, his response is to excuse himself, and call his mistress for a meeting. Some are more subtle, when Shumacher the gameskeeper asks him for his decision about being separated from his wife, and Le Chesnaye dismisses his concerns. We find out later that Shumacher is married to Lisette, Christine’s personal maid, and that while they both work for the lord, Shumacher is stuck in the country while Lisette lives in the city.
We get some of the ‘upstairs-downstairs’ type of storylines, most familiar to viewers of Downton Abbey, or Gosford Park, covered on this blog. Lisette bridges the two worlds, being a confidant to Christine, but also central to the downstairs storyline. She is pursued by Octave, as well as Marceau, a poacher who is hired mid-film by Le Chesnaye. She welcomes the attention from Marceau, but keeps getting caught by her husband.
The first half of the film is mostly setup. We meet the characters, learn about their lives and some of their viewpoints, and who they’re in love with or sleeping with. Christine is faithful to her husband, Andre is in love with Christine, and also devastated that she didn’t meet him at the airport after his historic flight over the Atlantic. Le Chesnaye is married to Christine, but has been seeing Genevieve for years, though he’s trying to break it off. Genevieve doesn’t want to break up with Le Chesnaye and will fight to keep him. Octave acts as something of a father figure to Christine, and pursues Lisette. It’s challenging to keep up with the characters, but it’s worth keeping track, because of how ridiculous things get at the end.
Le Chesnaye is persuaded to invite Andre to his country estate for the weekend, even with the public declaration, because he is a famous pilot, and feels secure that Christine doesn’t return his feelings. At the estate, all the players are there, Christine, Genevieve, Lisette, Octave, Andre, Le Chesnaye, and even adds some additional players, such as Marceau the poacher, Shumacher the gameskeeper, and Jackie, the niece of Christine, who also is in love with Andre.
The guests participate in rich country estate activities, like fancy dress dinner parties, and pheasant hunting. At the pheasant hunt, Christine is playing with a small field glass to look at the local wildlife when she sees Genevieve and her husband kissing. Unlike everyone else, she didn’t know her husband was unfaithful. She appears to take it well, inviting Genevieve to her room to tell her it’s not a problem, but of course, she later reveals she was hurt deeply.
Things come to a head that evening when a show is being put on by some of the main characters. Christine, upset that her husband is cheating on her, goes off with another man, and Andre sees, trying to chase her down. Shumacher has caught Lisette and Marceau cuddling and kissing earlier in the day, and is trying to find them at the party, where they’re still too close for his comfort. As Marceau tries to avoid him, he confides in Le Chesnaye who he has a particularly good relationship with. Le Chesnaye runs interference for him.
Meanwhile, Andre finds Christine and her would be lover, and starts a fight, beating the man soundly. He then pulls Christine aside and tells her he loves her. She unexpectedly tells him she loves him too, and suggests they go away together. But Andre insists on talking to Le Chesnaye first. When Le Chesnaye finds them, the fight starts. Meanwhile, the gameskeeper has caught up to Marceau and Lisette, and begins chasing the man around with a gun, firing wildly. Chaos ensues.
The melee scene lasts for quite awhile, and is pretty funny. There’s a great moment where Le Chesnaye tells one of his servants to end the farce, and the servant replies “Which one?”. When everything is calmed down, Le Chesnaye fires both the gameskeeper and Marceau.
But then, the characters have to deal with what’s gone on that evening. The film takes a few more turns before it wraps up, but I’ll leave that for viewers to experience themselves.
This is a really great film. I wish I had the background on the film to explain to everyone why it’s considered one of the greatest films of all time, but I have to admit that I don’t quite know. I imagine there’s some underlying theme that connects directly to the history of the time, but I haven’t been able to connect those dots.
What I do know is that the film is incredibly funny, well-acted, and enjoyable. It’s complex and fascinating. Definitely one to watch.
Two women at a boarding school plot to kill the cruel principal, who is married to one, and the former lover of another. The plan is complex, but they’ve planned it out carefully. They carry out the murder, but will they be able to keep their cool until the body is found?
The film is directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who was also the director of The Wages of Fear, another great film. It stars Simone Signoret as Nicole, the lover, and Vera Clouzot as Christina, the wife of DeLassalle, the principal. Vera Clouzot was also the wife and collaborator of the director.
Vera Clouzot is amazing in this film. Her face is unforgettable. Especially in this genre, when she needs to get scared, her eyes get wide and she seems genuinely terrified. Signoret as Nicole is all cool and collected, carefully planning the murder, only losing her nerve later on when things get real.
Now, I want to be careful discussing too many plot points of the film, because it is genuinely surprising and unique as you experience it. In fact, at the end of the film, there’s a title card that implores the audience not to spoil the film for others. So I’ll try my best to talk about it without giving away too much.
However, the murder isn’t a secret, it’s discussed in the opening scenes, and it’s done less than halfway through the film. At no point do we question whether or not DeLassalle deserves it. He runs a boarding school for boys, and is intentionally giving them less food than they need. When the boys protest, he throws them out of the hall without the rest of their dinner. He is intentionally cruel to Christina, forcing kisses on her, and when she says she wants to die, happily invites her to do so.
But the plan goes into effect almost immediately, with Nicole and Christina leaving for the weekend without telling anyone. They go to Nicole’s home in town, and call DeLassalle, telling him that Christina wants a divorce. Just as they expect, he demands to see her, taking a train to the town, without telling anyone at the school where he’s going.
The women have prepped their plan, which involves a sleeping medicine in a bottle of alcohol and a bathtub of water to drown him in. When he arrives, Nicole distracts the neighbors to ensure no one sees him enter. DeLassalle and Christina fight, as she tries to come up with any reason not to go through with it. We see DeLassalle using classic domestic abuse techniques to try to control her. When he tries to take a drink, she intentionally spills it all over him, to keep him from drinking. But he reacts as many abusers do, in anger, slapping her. When he asks for another drink, she fills his glass for him, staring him down while he drinks.
The film is beautifully shot, and there are some great shots here focusing our attention on DeLassalle’s throat, not letting us forget what’s happening.
Once the drug starts to take effect, Nicole comes back in, directing the action. Christina is nervous and hesitant, almost passing out as the deed is being done. But Nicole is all business. She knows exactly what to do, and pushes the action forward. They get him into the tub, and hold his head underwater. DeLassalle wakes up just before he goes into the tub and looks terrified, before succumbing. Nicole covers the tub with a vinyl tablecloth until the next morning.
They wrap the body in the waterproof tablecloth, and put him in a large wicker trunk. The tension begins here as the audience is placed in the position of wondering when they’ll get caught. This starts as they try to leave the next day and have their neighbors help them with the trunk. They almost get caught as the strap breaks. The neighbors of course have many solutions to the problem, all involving emptying the trunk right there. After getting out of that, a nosy gas station attendant sees that the trunk is leaking, offering to clean it up.
When the women return to the school, the dump the body in the small swimming pool, assuming that when he’s found, it will be ruled an accident.
While they wait for the body to be discovered, Nicole retains her calm, but Christina begins to crack even more. She pays close attention to the pool during her lessons, not understanding why the body hasn’t come up to the surface. Finally, Nicole contrives a reason to drain the pool, after dropping her keys in it. One of the boys swims to the bottom, and finds DeLassalle’s lighter.
But when the pool is drained, there is no body to be found. And things only get more intriguing from there.
I think that’s as far as I can go before really telling too much. I cannot express enough how important it is for people to just go watch this movie. In it’s era, it was certainly a horror film, though now it’s more of suspense thriller. Regardless, there are still some scary scenes involving Christina’s perspective of DeLassalle drowning. There’s no gore, but the tension Clouzot creates works even 60 years later.
And the resolution to the film is surprising, satisfying, and retains the mystery that has run through the entire film. As I mentioned, Vera Clouzot is the perfect actress for this film. Signoret is wonderful as the cool and collected Nicole, who also slowly loses her cool as things devolve. It’s one of the most impressive films of all time, and a must-see.
The Double Feature
Two great films, but do they work together? Both are French, but they are completely different genres. One is a comic farce, the other a suspense thriller. So on that level they are a bit of a mismatched pair. But I still enjoyed watching both films, although Diabolique I find much more interesting.
But trying to talk about the films together is challenging. I usually try to pick films that share a genre, or actor, or director. These films share a culture, and not much else. Still, two classic films from France are pretty wonderful to watch.
I skipped last week. I had a death in the family, and while I could have made it work, I decided to give myself a break, and take it easy. When the new year started, I decided to let myself have a bit more leeway in these posts, so taking a week off was worth doing.
So what about next week’s films? Filmstruck has a really interesting series right now called “Brit Noir”. I’ve seen a couple, but the others all look great. So I’m pulling two films from there:
Carol Reed – The Third Man (1949)
Edward Dmytryk – Obsession (1949)
The Third Man is one of the greatest films ever, and one of my personal favorites. And I know absolutely nothing about Obsession, so we’ll find out next week.
See you then.