During the First World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German POW camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from.
A charismatic thief makes friends with a bankrupt baron who comes to live in the thief's slum. Meanwhile the thief seeks the love of a young woman, who is held emotionally captive by her slumlord family.
A small-time thief steals a car and impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy.
Aviator André Jurieux has just completed a record-setting flight, but when he is greeted by an admiring crowd, all he can say to them is how miserable he is that the woman he loves did not come to meet him. He is in love with Christine, the wife of aristocrat Robert de la Cheyniest. Robert himself is involved in an affair with Geneviève de Marras, but he is trying to break it off. Meanwhile, André seeks help from his old friend Octave, who gets André an invitation to the country home where Robert and Christine are hosting a large hunting party. As the guests arrive for the party, their cordial greetings hide their real feelings, along with their secrets - and even some of the servants are involved in tangled relationships. Written by
Every now and then, a firefight breaks out on one of the boards about this film. Amid the pomposity of the latest, DFC-2 thoughtfully wrote: "This is one film, perhaps because of its director and precarious early history, that has taken on a halo and the requisite critical support to nullify any criticism. The only question is: Is it truly that much better or different or has hyperbole and elaborate rationalisation been canonised as truth?" Which is the real heart of the issue when it comes to why I found myself taking against this film so violently.
For many people it's not enough to like the film - the dissenters have to be proved wrong. Objective opinion isn't allowed. Only acceptance of a proscribed opinion is acceptable. Anything less is a fault not of the film or a difference in personal taste but of the character of the viewer. I was involved in one dispute over on European Film about this a couple of years ago, dismissed as one of the 'army of knuckle-dragging Nantherthal British morons' that poster Paul Panzer was so fond of racially berating because it was impossible for him to accept anyone else's opinion of the film as being as valid as his own. The reason for the anti-British sentiments was, I think, because it had just been reissued in the UK and done very, very badly at the box-office. Unlike other posters, he didn't claim my fellow soldiers were unable to understand it but that we had not seen it at all because no-one who saw it could not like it.
I recently posted on a thread about overrated films, and listed this as one of the two worst films I've ever seen (BREATHLESS was the other, but that's another story). I just thought it was a bad film, plain and simple, more CARRY ON UP THE Château than high art. There are hundreds of worse films, but unlike RULES, no-one is claiming THE WINTER WARRIOR or Timbo Hines' WAR OF THE WORLDS are all-time greats, so the fall from expectation to reality isn't so hard. Thing is, would I have had such a low opinion of the film if it weren't for the following factors?
1. The film's reputation as one of the five greatest films of all time. I've never found any reason to agree with this. It just creates a gulf of disappointment when it just turns out to be a silly bedtime farce. I think LA GRAND ILLUSION suffers from the same problem, although its a much better film, BTW. It's as over-hyped as any summer blockbuster popcorn flick.
2. The arrogance of many of its defenders. Now I DON'T mean all the posters here who like the film. Some of them have been very reasonable about it, some do see that people have their reasons for disliking it. But there's still the stink that this is a film you HAVE to like to be taken seriously.
3. The insecurity of many of its defenders. Again, this does not apply to all the posters here. But there is a desperate need to cling to the supremacy of one set opinion as a mark of, to paraphrase CFK, being the 'right kind of person/film buff.' The phrase Emperor's New Clothes ring any bells?
4. Snobbery towards the initial audience. The whole thing about audiences of the day 'getting it wrong' or not understanding the film. Who says they didn't? Maybe they understood it too well, and THAT's why it flopped? Maybe they too found it's artificiality boring, it's acting bad, it's plot plain silly.
5. Reading too much into the history. We keep on getting parallels to Nazi Germany and the assumption it's a comment on fascism and indifference. I don't buy that for one second. Schumacher isn't some proto-Nazi. He's a very French figure of ridicule. He's not even German but one of those Alsatian Franco-Germans whose nationality changes with the borders after each new war. What he represents is the kind of old fashioned moral puritanism that later found its self-flagellating expression in the Vichy government and its moral renewal/hypocrisy. He's not a prophecy but a reflection of a state of mind the French flit to and fro between over the years as the wind changes direction. You'll find the same thing in America with the Moral Majority.
This is a film that needs to be seen with low expectations and an open mind. The more people insist on its undeniable greatness, the worse it looks, the more it disappoints.
Bottom line, to me the film is just another country house sex comedy. It's just the accident of history that has seen its importance blown out of all proportion as people try to explain away its failure and create a myth that the film cannot live up to for many people. And a lot of people on that long-forgotten firefight disliked the film just as a lot liked it. It divides opinions, which is one thing in its favour. But I have found that some of the people it appeals to are the very kind of narrow-minded self-important snobs obsessed with invisible rules that the film takes the p*ss out of so amateurishly. The best joke in the film is that it appeals to EXACTLY the kind of people it is attacking!
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