Criterion Sunday 216: La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939)

Ah, “the game”, it’s a terrible thing isn’t it? A lot of “all-time classics” can seem a little tired with age and endless plaudits, but La Règle du jeu, while it has elements that are very much of its era, still seems to hold up. It can be as furious as a slapstick at times, but underlying it all is this sense of the decadence of the bourgeois: switching partners, shooting animals, and beating each other up with no sense of consequences involved at all. Even when one of the servants, a gamekeeper, goes berserk with a shotgun, everyone treats it as just a bit of fun for a party. The magic is that Renoir, who stars as one of wealthy set, orchestrates this all without the sense of simplistic judgement or finger-wagging. It’s evident what’s going on, but there’s an indulgence to it that I think would be difficult to present today when observing the same kind of people. The staging, too, is fantastic, with some deep shots recalling Tati’s best work, and fluid sequence shots that track around all the cameras with lithe choreography. It still holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir and Carl Koch; Cinematographer Jean Bachelet; Starring Nora Gregor, Marcel Dalio, Paulette Dubost, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 25 August 1999 (and earlier on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, September 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Monday 14 May 2018).

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Criterion Sunday 85: Pygmalion (1938)

George Bernard Shaw’s satirical play about the fragility of the English class system gets a fine adaptation here, with Leslie Howard (also the film’s co-director) portraying the mercurial and largely detestable Henry Higgins, and Wendy Hiller as his flower-girl muse, her Cockney accent rather patchy in the early portions of the film. There’s a prickly intensity to the relationship between the two, and it’s not exactly clear who ends up with whom at the film’s close (without giving anything away, there’s a hint that’s what’s seen may be imagined, or so it seems to me), but in the meantime there’s a feisty comedy of manners, as Higgins seeks to teach Eliza the King’s English, well enough to pass as aristocracy in the right kind of setting. And so, without quite meaning to, he essentially destroys her — or effectively tries to — by replacing her self-respect with the indignities of middle-class morality. It moves along at a fair clip with some jaunty editing (by David Lean, in an early film role for him) and the two leads trade barbs in a watchable and comedic manner.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard; Writers George Bernard Shaw, W. P. Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis and Ian Dalrymple (based on the play by Shaw); Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr.; Starring Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller; Length 96 minutes.

Seen on a train to London (DVD), Sunday 22 May 2016.

Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess, 1919)

I wrote this review for the wonderful Silent London site to celebrate the rerelease of the Lubitsch in Berlin box set, and you should read it there, as it is accompanied by five better reviews of the other films in that box set. The set is from the ever-reliable Eureka on their Masters of Cinema imprint, and I can highly recommend it.


One of the wonderful things about silent cinema is that film techniques and technologies we nowadays take for granted were still evolving. This occasionally means we get stagy affairs with huge melodramatic emotions matched to over-the-top gestural acting and a sense of decorum a hundred years removed from our own sensibilities. Sure, some may live up to this stereotype (like the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde I recently reviewed), but for every ten of those there’s a film like Die Austernprinzessin: constantly inventive, filled with laughs, and with a satirical sense that doesn’t feel hugely out of step with anything being made today. The director is Ernst Lubitsch, who at this point was still making his name but would go on to become one of the world’s most famous directors upon moving to Hollywood in the 1930s. He even had a brand of sorts, the “Lubitsch Touch”, which is sufficiently vague a term to have prompted much subsequent speculation. Whatever it may be, he certainly does have a way with a film, no less in this early effort than in many of his ‘mature’ works.

At the heart of The Oyster Princess is a pretty full-blooded critique of capitalism; there’s certainly no pulling punches here. The “oyster king”, Mr Quaker (Victor Janson), lives in a vast mansion attended by numerous servants and has a spoilt daughter, Ossi (Ossi Oswalda). Until the very end, all that either seems to care about is this privileged life. Quaker’s catchphrase, delivered at the end of each of the movie’s four acts, is “that doesn’t impress me”. Ossi, meanwhile, who kicks off the plot with her demand to marry a prince, susbequently pays only scant attention to either the man or the relationship. Hers is an entitled world of passing whims, and she soon decides that this prince she’s been given isn’t one she likes very much after all.

But this is a comedy of manners, and part of the joke is that Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke) has fallen on hard times, and so has sent his valet Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to check out Mr Quaker’s offer. This somewhat inevitably leads to his being confused with the prince, but given the frivolous way the Quakers live, perhaps that’s little surprise. The opening shot shows Mr Quaker smoking an unreasonably large cigar, attended by a phalanx of obsequious black servants, and whose every word is hung upon by an array of secretaries. This obscene overkill — Quaker doesn’t need so many women to transcribe his dictation, or so many handservants, as most of them have nothing to do — quickly becomes a running joke. There are serried ranks of servants to help Ossi into and out of her bath, and serving a meal is like a military drill. This is obscenely gluttonous excess for its own sake — and for our amusement.

Although the technical limitations of the period mean the camera is still largely fixed, there’s a lightness of touch in orchestrating the mise en scène, meaning these limitations are rarely noticed. Characters move around incessantly, for example. So vast is Quaker’s mansion that he, attended by his many servants, jogs from room to room. His daughter meanwhile is a whirligig of emotion, throwing everything around petulantly. At one point there’s even a dance sequence — “a foxtrot epidemic breaks out!” — allowing for various groupings around the mansion until eventually everyone, right down to the kitchen servants, is seen dancing.

It may not be surprising to devotees of Lubitsch’s work, but for one new to his cinema, what’s astonishing is that almost every moment in the film’s concise hour-long running time is filled with inventiveness and comic inspiration. Shots that prosaically bridge a gap between two scenes or just show characters listening are not for Lubitsch, and (as mentioned above) even moving between rooms is done with a humorous touch. The performances are also uniformly delightful, particularly Oswalda’s cheeky impishness and Janson’s amusingly affected stoicism.

Once again, this is another excellent Masters of Cinema release, with an exemplary transfer to DVD and a rather jaunty score perfectly matched to the action on screen. This isn’t just an excellent primer to Lubitsch’s cinema, or to silent screen comedy. It’s a marvel of a film and a joy to watch.

The Oyster Princess DVD coverCREDITS
Director Ernst Lubitsch; Writers Hanns Kräly and Lubitsch; Cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl; Starring Ossi Oswalda, Julius Falkenstein, Victor Janson, Harry Liedtke; Length 60 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 1 February 2014.