Sight & Sound-Off: #4 – ‘The Rules of the Game’ and ‘8 & 1/2’

With privilege comes perspective. Of course, it’s almost always self-serving and insular. F. Scott Fitzgerald argued that the rich are “different”, and for the most part, the famous writer was right. Stripped of all the everyday cares that come with most of life (money, property, class), they tend to concentrate on meaningless minutia. It’s as if they have to invent problems in order to seem more ‘normal’, more ‘real’. Now, granted, this tends to be a gross overgeneralization. One imagines a world of wealthy people who scoff at the superficial complaints of their brothers and sisters in affluence. On the other hand, the media loves to make out like greenback bandits, bashing the prosperous and the well-healed because of the perceived disconnect between those who have… and the rest of us.

Nowhere is this truer than in film, which finds seemingly divergent and energetic ways of making the affluent pay of their particular lack of selflessness. In fact, we can look at the two choices sitting at number four on Sight & Sound‘s recent Best Films of All Time list (Rules of the Game overall, the previously cited 8 & 1/2, now for the directors) to witness such a wide aesthetic swatch. As noted before, Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical statement about an artist in freefall doesn’t dwell on the mechanics of making movies as much as the spoiled man sitting at the middle of this amazing fictional career. Trying to balance things between a wife, mistress, producers and the press, our harried hero escapes, running away in hopes of finding perspective, and the reason he is having such problems.

For Jean Renoir, the issue was far more frightening. While Rules of the Game is often cited as one of the first “modern” movies ever made (from subject matter to cinematic approach), it’s real purpose is as social commentary. As the son of the famous painter, Renoir knew privilege. He also felt a tremendous burden to rise above such selfish ideals. He ran away from the snotty boarding schools he was sent to, and suffered injuries while serving in World War I. It was there that he discovered cinema, and with his father’s blessing, pursued his dream of being an artist. Instead of working in ceramics, as his dad suggested, he decided to work in celluloid. By 1937, and the release of Grand Illusion, he was an international success.

He was also a scandal. The rising tide of Nazism in Europe saw Illusion banned in Germany, with propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels calling it “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1”. With Rules, he hoped to get away from the more naturalistic approach he had been taking and, instead, emulate the opulence and style categorized by the films coming out of America. Fashioning a simple romance over a party-filled country weekend, he stayed away from direct criticism. However, in the carefree, calm, complicity of the rich characters at the center of the story, Renoir denounced his countrymen (and women) as ready, willing, and able to turn France over to Hitler, just to save their skins. While there is no obvious sign of such indirect treason, the entire movie mocks a group who would allow war and death to occur, as long as their status remained secure.

Of course, audiences who saw themselves reacted badly, causing the government to stand up and ban the film as “demoralizing”. Renoir was not happy, and would spend the rest of his life angry at his homeland. Even today, it’s not hard to comprehend the backlash. Set among the idyllic countryside outside Paris, Rules of the Game is a weird combination of genres. On the one hand, you have the standard contrivances of a he/she courtship, the filmmaker forcing his hand with all the moon/June joys. It’s the fringes, the places where you aren’t looking, where Rules redefines its position. Take the mid-act bird hunt, captured in an amazing combination of edits and mise-en-scene montages. As they callously cut down nature, taking pleasure in the death they decry, we get the age old idea of self-centered superiority and class cluelessness.

Fellini is not as obvious in his condemnation, though something similar happens in 8 & 1/2. Though he supposedly is based on the filmmaker himself, Guido Anselmi seems to lack his source’s lust for life. Instead, the downtrodden director wants to blame everything but himself on the problems. He sees his lack of creativity as caused by the past…and the present. The lack of harmony in his home life is as much a result of his wife/concubine combination as it is a desire to indulge in everything his celebrity has to offer. As a character, Anselmi is like the rich folk in Rules. They don’t deny their place as much as wonder why anyone would deny them such. The means of getting there may not have been typical, but once they are on the pedestal, they feel entitled to do what they want.

That’s the key word: entitlement. It’s something that’s carried over the many decades since Rules arrived and Fellini found his idealized idiosyncrasies. In both films, we have characters for whom the everyday world, as we see it, no longer exists. Parties become lavish outpourings of power, while a man who basically makes things up for a living can run away and enjoy a tryst and time away from the problems that plague him. We react in kind, looking at their lives and simultaneously wondering what it would be like within a psychological “how dare they” framework. We long for a life free of financial worry, yet both Renoir and Fellini argue that the troubles that come with wealth and position can be just as destructive…and damning.

That both movies can move past the obvious insularity of their subjects and strike us as emotional and authentic speaks to the talent of the men behind the lens. Both Renoir and Fellini find ways to turn the private predicaments of their privileged characters and turn them a tad universal. Before long, we no longer feel we are watching a spoiled filmmaker or a group of elite Reich sympathizers. Instead, Rules of the Game and 8 & 1/2 use their narratives as a knowing dissection of their discordant parties. On the one hand, it is clear that wealth provides a bubble of obscured reality that reduces even the most right thinking person to a thoughtless troll. Sure, we can act the same. But as Fitzgerald warned, it’s this difference that defines the rich…and out aesthetic approach to same.