Category Archives: foreign film

Movie Essentials: The Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game (1939) was a critical and box office disappointment upon its release despite the fact that it was the most expensive French production ever at the time. In fact, the French censors banned it on the grounds that it was “having an undesirable influence over the young.” It wasn’t until after World War II that the film was rediscovered and a more modern audience could see it for it was: a masterpiece.

Aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) has just completed a record setting flight, but when he lands, the only thing on his mind is his disappointment that Christine (Nora Gregor), the wife of aristocrat Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), is not there to greet him. Despite her marriage, he is in love with her. Robert himself in involved in an affair with Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély) though he is trying to get out of it. André gets an invitation to Robert’s home from his good friend, Octave (Jean Renoir), where there is a large hunting party gathering. However, Octave himself is in love with Christine. More and more characters come into play: aristocrats, maids, servicemen, each involved in an intricate love web that all comes exploding in on itself at this weekend gathering. At the end of the night, André is dead, shot by a jealous groundskeeper who thought he was the man sleeping with his wife, and Christine belongs to no one.

The film stands as a commentary of the upper social class of Europe at the time. The aristocracy looks down on their servants and thinks little of them, using them for their own games, while that same lower class flails in a crumbling society, the lure of an outbreak of war pending. The director, Jean Renoir, had remarked that he believed it was the film’s candor about the social lives of the economic classes that drew such heavy criticism, that audiences were not ready for the truth presented in his film. The truth of the narrative is that the rich ignored the qulams of the lesser people, so indulging themselves with their own frivolous romances, that they failed to see the rising seeds of conflict that erupted into another world war.

Octave, played by Renoir himself, often remarks during the film, “Everyone has his reasons.” There is no central antagonist in the film. Indeed, the viewer is able to relate to just about everyone. All the characters have motives and goals against which they must compete within the rules of their society. They are all trapped in the rules of the game, a game of social hierarchy where the poor stay poor, the rich become richer and desires and lusts are structured according to placement. The Rules of the Game may hold many parallels to modern times, maintaining its relevance.

What the film ultimately gives the audience is a wide tapestry of European social existence. There are moments of comedy and drama and action, the dialogue is witty and the multitude of characters are interesting and involving. Much like his father, Auguste Renoir, a leading impressionist painter, Jean Renoir utilizes his canvas and presents an intricate glimpse into a timeless story.

At the film’s conclusion, André lies dead, the result of mistaken identity. He is a victim of someone who tried to transcend social ranking and become something more. He sought a married woman, a woman of higher class and even flew across the ocean to prove himself to her, but it does not matter. He is a victim of the rules of the game, a game that was rigged in Europe at the time and, with its eerie parallels to modern times, may still be to this day.

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Movie Essentials: Persona

Ingmar Bergman has always been cinema’s great existentialist. His work delves into musings about life and death and love and sex and the mystery surrounding all of it. Watching one of his films is equivalent almost to a church confessional, as if he is whispering to us all his deepest thoughts.

Filmed during the height of the war in Vietnam, Persona (1966) begins with a series of seemingly random images: corpses, spiders, a young boy waking up, hands nailed into a cross, a reel of film spinning out of control while showing old cartoons.

We then meet our principal characters: An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who falls into a silent state suddenly during a performance and her young, soon-to-be married nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson).

The two spend the summer at a doctor’s summer house. Throughout their stay, the audience learns about each woman, one through talking (Alma), the other by silence (Elisabet). Alma relates a lucid sexual excursion she and her friend had at the beach and the subsequent abortion. Her guilt afterwards festers and makes her wonder if she could be two people at once. Afterwards, in a dreamlike state, both women meet in the dead of night and seemingly blend together. Upon discovering that Elisabet has been condescendingly humoring her during their stay and seeing her as a case study, the two fight. Their fight escalating into surrealism, Elisabet’s husband arrives and confuses Alma for Elisabet, further drawing the two characters together. It is revealed that Elisabet hates her child, and Alma is terrified of their strange connection, seemingly trying to convince herself that she will not end up the same way. In a state of near vampirism, Alma cuts her wrist and Elisabet drinks her blood before Alma repeatedly slaps her. Alma leaves Elisabet as the audience views the film projector spin to a stop.

Bergman described the film as a poem in images. He came up with the initial idea after an operation and the process of waking up from unconsciousness. The film seems to imply that consciousness is something unnatural. Both Alma and Elisabet suffer from delusions about what they should be feeling, but can’t. Love is a mystery to them and even harmful in respects. Elisabet is hiding from confronting her fears about humanity, and Alma tries to convince herself that she won’t end up like Alma, a vessel of emptiness. Hands are a visual key throughout the film, always reaching, searching for connection. When both characters realize just how similar they are, they see that they are both deluding themselves.

The camera stays on the two women’s faces during the pivotal conclusion. We see every movement in their expression, their lips trembling, their eyes watering. Through this deep inspection, the audience understands that both characters are open to us despite what they hide from themselves. And then the faces merge.

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Perhaps Bergman was making a comparison between the character of Elisabet and us, the audience. We sit back and view the film silently as Elisabet does, watching Alma pour herself out to us, telling us her story, but, like Elisabet, we watch with amusement rather than investment, and Bergman resents our condescension.

Or perhaps Bergman was insinuating the decline of structures themselves. Featuring shots of Nazi concentration camps and a monk burning himself in protest, the 1960s were a time when societal structures were viewed with rancor. By deconstructing the film process and showing the film reel in his film, perhaps Bergman implies that all structures, whether they be social or sexual or governmental or cinematic, are false compared to the allure of unconsciousness and the peace that entails.

Alma eventually convinces Elisabet to say one word. “Nothing.” Perhaps that is the meaning of the film, a desire to return to nothingness when confronted with both halves of our personality, one ready to admit the truth and the other trying to hide it.

Perhaps Bergman’s seminal work, “Persona” continues to haunt and entrance those who view it. It will always be one of the greatest works of cinema.

Movie Essentials: Seven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa is cinema’s Shakespeare. Not in terms of language or world influence, but in terms of narratives. Kurosawa himself was an unabashed Shakespeare fan, adapting two of his plays into films (Macbeth into Throne of Blood (1957) and King Lear into Ran (1985)). Kurosawa tackles universal themes that transcend their setting and time, crafting stories that are relevant across different cultures, much as Shakespeare did. In addition to this, both storytellers used ensemble casts, presented themes of social class, love and honor and posed more questions than answers.

Seven Samurai is the most recognized of his films and arguably his finest. While it does not feature the intense dramatics of Ikiru (1952) or the ground-breaking aspects of Rashomon (1950), it still stands as the finest samurai film ever made, a genre-defining, epic presentation of class struggle that illuminates the past and present.

Set during the 16th century, the film focuses on a small village. A group of bandits pledges to return in just a few months time to pillage their crops and destroy their town. The townspeople, defenseless, come up with a plan to recruit samurai to their cause. The first samurai they recruit, Kambei Shimada, played by the magnificent Takashi Shimura, believes that with seven samurai, the villagers stand a chance of survival.

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Each of the samurai in the film is a complete character with a storyline and an arc. There’s Katsushirō, the young one, who seeks to become a samurai and to learn from Kambei. He must deal with his love toward Shino, a peasant girl whose father does not want her involved with the dangerous samurai, going so far as to cut her hair and masquerade her as a boy (further alluding to Shakespeare). Kyūzō is a master swordsman and a seemingly super human individual who Katsushirō admires. Kambei’s friend Shichirōji is able to rouse the villagers to battle. The great Toshiro Mifune is Kikuchiyo, a poser of a samurai, the orphaned son of peasants himself, who treads both the world of the farmers and samurai with comedic flair. Heihachi illuminates dark times for the samurai and Gorobei, envious for death in battle, completes the seven.

The film explores the relationship between different class structures; the poor, the warrior, the rich. Finding a peaceful coexistence between farmer and samurai is a constant struggle, the farmers worried that the samurai will take their women, the samurai concerned that the farmers have killed their brethren for armor. In the middle is Kikuchiyo, Mifune mesmerizing as a man who wants to be a samurai, but is filled with the doubts of a peasant. He calls out both clans on their sins towards one another (Mifune and Kurosawa made a total of 16 films together).

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The climactic battle scene at the film’s conclusion remain breathtaking even by today’s standards. Utilizing quick editing, harsh sounds and violent death, the film makes no excuses about the brutality of violence and the cost it has on both the samurai and the farmers. Filmed in the thick of mud and rain, entire buildings going up in flames, the dramatic outcome is near apocalyptic.

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One of the criticisms often levied against Kurosawa is that his films are too Western. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by the films of John Ford (the samurai are nearly identical to the myth of the American cowboy- this influence would in turn reverse itself as Kurosawa’s work influenced Westerns made by Sergio Leone and John Sturges). And while his films are not as ethnic or narrative as other Far East endeavors, they instead present themselves as universally intelligible. Whether viewed in the Western world or Asia or the Middle East, just as classic fables and Shakespeare’s plays, Kurosawa’s themes are eternal and have given his work a staying power.

At the film’s conclusion, four of the samurai have lost their lives. All of the bandits are dead. The townspeople celebrate, but Kambei has again lost his chance for a glorious death in battle. He must instead bury younger friends still full of life. He remarks that the samurai may have won, but they have lost as well, the farmers the only true victors of the fight. Shino looks past Katsushirō, displacing their love in order to remain in her social class, the bond between samurai and farmer now over. One can only sense that Katsushirō will end up as Kambei, full of regret, haunted by the death of old friends and suffering from fleeting happiness that cannot be found again.

The final shot lingers on the graves of the four samurai, Kikuchiyo among them, posing eternal questions about death, love, loyalty and social dynamics that continue to vex the world to this day. It is up to the audience to answer these questions, just as we must answer questions about the virtue of Hamlet, the treachery of Iago and the humanity of Brutus in Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa presents us with a wide tapestry of characters and social consciousness, but leaves us to decipher for our ourselves the answers to life’s questions. Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa’s films will continue to linger in our minds.

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