Forget “Here’s looking at you, kid,” coined and toasted by Humphrey Bogart as Rick on the set of Casablanca (1942).
Forget "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," murmured in wonderment by Judy Garland as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz (1939).
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The Rules of the Game
1939, the year Hollywood exploded in creativity and Europe plunged into war, saw the release of perhaps the most enduring classic of French cinema, La Regle du jeu. Or, as it is known in English, The Rules of the Game, written and directed by, and featuring, Jean Renoir.
If the name Renoir rings two bells, it should. Jean Renoir was the son of impressionist painter, Auguste Renoir, whose inherited genius bloomed on the movie screen rather than the canvas of his father.
The Rules of the Game is a drama, a comedy, an essay, a portrait of the French class system, played over a holiday weekend at the chateau of world-weary nobleman, the Marquis de la Chesnaye, portrayed by Marcel Dalio. You know Dalio as well: soon to be a refugee from Vichy France, he returned to the screen as Rick’s crooked croupier, Emil, in Casablanca.
Throughout the film the Marquis philosophizes, romances, plays, and displays his elegant mechanical toys as the world teters on the brink of war. That impending war is presaged in an emotionally devastating sequence: a merciless hunt, where the vacationing elites shoot helpless rabbits and birds driven from their woods by beaters. Bambi is tame by comparison.
There is omnipresent chatter: the careless musings of these idle one- percenters, eating, partying, flirting and cheating, have undeniable charm. But Renoir saves his most distilled and brain-stopping aphorism for another, far less detached character: Octave, the poor but ever-entertaining clown whom Renoir plays, quite ably, himself.
Variously translated, Octave’s oft-quoted line is usually rendered as,
"The truly terrible thing in life is that everyone has their reasons."
And the comedy and tragedy of The Rules of the Game are that, but for Octave, no character in the film possesses a moral compass, a fact that so greatly offended early audiences that the film was criticized, denigrated, boycotted and ultimately banned.
Renoir, previously the darling of French film, was devastated.
Blaming The Messenger
In later years Renoir observed that he had held up a mirror to his nation. They resented what they saw and blamed the messenger. For the film portrays the raw and naked self-interest of a decadent society shortly to crumble militarily before the Wehrmacht. The Blitzkrieg is in fact foreshadowed by the fate of Chesnaye’s devoted groundskeeper, Schumacher, a stalwart German, terribly wronged and, tearfully, longing for revenge.
The Rules of the Game was not to achieve its rightful place in French film history until after the war, when a desperate search for hidden and buried negatives and prints permitted a nearly full restoration under Renoir’s supervision. That is the film as we know it today.
And like all great film, it is alive upon the screen. We enter a time and place not unlike our own filled with cars, planes, mansions, apartments and toys. The Marquis is as obsessed with his mechanical toys as we are, today, with our computers, internet, social media and iphones. The one-percenters, the down-and-outers, the workers, earnest or disgruntled, all have their reasons and, but for Octave and a certain cook who takes issue with an ethnic jibe, none have morals.
When people have only their reasons and nothing else to guide their thoughts and actions, we have chaos, as we witness today. Civilized life is built upon rights and duties. Our founders knew well that everyone has their reasons. But they also knew that unchecked self-interest for all leads to ruin for all. And that laws, checks and balances, morals and a collective sense of a higher purpose and, perhaps, a higher power, were essential to the success of this or any nation.
So do we find redemption for Renoir’s France of The Rules of the Game?
Of all places, in Hollywood, that sinner’s paradise where everyone has always had their reasons and little or no restraint in indulging their whims.
Barely three years after The Rules of the Game, feisty Warner Brothers offered that redemption in their best-ever production, Casablanca (1942), set in the then Vichy-run French colony of Morocco, where self-interest is the order of the day, only the strong, monied or beautiful survive, and as Sidney Greenstreet’s Senor Ferrari informs us, miracles are outlawed.
No spoiler alerts are ever needed for Casablanca.
A putative love story Casablanca is, in its deep structure, a morality tale: the renouncing of self-interest for common interest and the embrace of moral duty.
So as the Marseillaise thunders on the soundtrack there’s not a dry eye in the house when heart-broken American and jaded Frenchman find a common moral awakening immortalized in another classic movie line:
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
So there is, indeed, a response to Octave’s poignant conundrum.
That we, each of us, must search for and find our finest reasons.