Robert Altman famously cited The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu) (1939), by French director Jean Renoir, as his chief inspiration for Gosford Park (2001). That is pretty obvious upon watching both the films. They both involve a large ensemble cast playing servants and masters on a shooting week-end at a country house.
While Gosford Park is bound to the conventions of a murder mystery, Rules is bound to the conventions of a French farce. Both films sport complicated plots told in an oblique way, with little pieces of plot exposition “overheard” in snippets as the restless camera moves throughout these people’s lives. Altman made this style of filmmaking his trademark. Renoir on the other hand, was a revelation to me. I’d seen his Grand Illusion in a college course. I wasn’t prepared for something as contemporary feeling as Rules delivers. The irony is that part of my feeling is actually owing to my familiarity with Altman, who is borrowing heavily from Renoir.
The two films have many scenes and characters that line up in synchronicity with one another. Both contain a scene in which a servant announces their master’s dietary peculiarities to a bemused kitchen staff. Both films play the scene for comedy, but I find it interesting, if not particularly important, that in the English country house the orders are obeyed, while the French cook sneers that “I can allow for diets, not obsessions.” I think I might get that stitched on a pillow. In Rules of the Game one of characters is Andre, a famous aviator. His counterpart in Gosford Park is Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) who like Andre, is also famous, self-made and despised by the titled aristocracy as a climber. Though they invite the outsiders in to add a bit of glamour to their week-end, they make it clear that they exist apart from their so-called betters. Novello is kind to Mabel, a woman whose cash-strapped husband is cheating on her and whose position is so tenuous as to be mocked by everyone including the servants. The moment stands out in a film that is all about the nuances of correct behavior, because it is a rare instance of a person actually being nice. One can be polite, the film says, and be mean as hell. In Rules of the Game, the Marquis takes a shine to a poacher about to be punished for killing rabbits on his land. He not only lets the fellow off but gives him a job on his staff and helps him out of a jam involving a married ladies’ maid. In the end, though, noblesse oblige only goes so far and the Marquis has to dismiss the poacher because the fellow takes it too far, driving the maid’s husband into a shooting spree.
Both films take place in the 1930s, prior or the Second World War and reportedly satirize the upper class that was enjoying its last hurrah before the war and encroachment of the middle class. And both films, weirdly, end up falling a bit in love with the upper class creatures they are meant to savage. After Renoir’s hunting scene, where he shows crowds of bunnies and pheasants blasted by ladies and gentlemen in tweed suits, the director doesn’t really follow through. He shows us these people, warts and all, and the result is that we like them. Altman shows us upper class parodies like Dame Maggie Smith’s Lady Trentham, who is best described as a bitch on wheels. By the end of the film, though, he has revealed her fragility and we see her as a weak old lady who has to rely entirely on a paid employee for companionship.
I was reminded of my one and only experience with the titled aristocracy. My husband, then-boyfriend, and I were invited to spend the week-end at the estate of the Earl of Perth, by the Earl’s grandson. I went into the week-end with an American-sized chip on my shoulder. On the first evening of our visit, His Lordship did nothing to alleviate my prejudices. He fussed about my drinking a glass of Scotch by addressing my boyfriend as if I weren’t in the room, and gave me a pictorial magazine to look at as if I were incapable of reading a newspaper or joining in the masculine conversation about world events. I fumed privately that the French had the right idea in their revolution. By the second afternoon, I began to change my mind as the Earl, dressed like Bertie Wooster on Jeeves’ day off, announced that we should all go into to town in the Purple Emperor (his name for the purple mini van in which he was driven about the county) to purchase corduroy trousers, an adventure which was quashed (to my eternal regret) by his grandson. Later that day he took me aside to show me his treasured collection of ladies’ scrapbooks, some dating from the 18th century, which held the botanical pressings of generations of the female members of his family. That night, he even let me have my dram of whiskey without comment. In short, it can be difficult to hate the gentry once you get to know them. I feel like that is what Renoir and Altman ended up deciding as well.
Since this will be posted on a Jeremy Northam fan blog, chances are that most of you are, like me, more familiar with the imitator than the original. While Gosford Park stands on its own as an independent work of art, it makes it richer when you understand that it is an homage. I’m loathe to say one is better than the other. Both are fantastic, inventive and so dense with action and detail that rewards repeat viewing.
by Jenny The Nipper
Author of three books about classic film stars published under the name “Jenny Curtis,” Jenny is equally well-known in the world of classic movie geekdom as “Nipper.” If you’ve ever seen Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth, you may remember “Jerry the Nipper” on which the nom de blog is an obvious pun.
Jenny’s blog, Cinema OCD, which describes itself as ‘The Aristocrat of motion picture blogs’ is packed with wonderful reviews of classic movies. I highly recommend a visit.