“You see, in this world there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”
I’ve known that quote well for many years, thanks to the writings of Paul Nelson (who referenced it often), just as I’ve known that the man responsible for originally uttering those words was Jean Renoir. But until last week, when I watched his fine film The Rules of the Game for the first time in over twenty years, I didn’t know (or I’d forgotten) that the quote emanated therein. Spoken by the pivotal character Octave, played by Renoir himself, hearing the words spoken aloud, in French, was a surprise and a revelation.
(In writing a biography of Paul Nelson and collecting his best writings into book form, and trying to understand how someone so talented and so loved came to an end that few of his old friends could comprehend — living a life that was solitary at best, lonely at worst, while no longer writing for publication — I’ve been tempted to rely on Renoir’s words to explain and excuse what happened. Thus far that strikes me as too easy; but then, I’ve more than once used Renoir’s quote to explain my own actions.)
In the September/October 2006 issue of Film Comment, director Paul Schrader writes an ambitious, lengthy (the longest article the magazine has published in its 42 years), erudite, and sometimes impenetrable piece entitled “The Film Canon” (the introduction to which may currently be found online). Supposedly sans favoritism and “taste, personal and popular,” based on “those movies that artistically defined film history,” he cites The Rules of the Game as the number one greatest film of all time.
According to Schrader: “For me the artist without whom there could not be a film canon is Jean Renoir, and the film without which a canon is inconceivable is The Rules of the Game.”
It is no doubt a great film: funny and poignant and heartbreaking and, ultimately, very moral (thus satisfying Schrader’s dictum that “no work that fails to strike moral chords can be canonical”). But even if it were not, if it were only a so-so movie that happened to contain Renoir’s memorable quote, which spoke to me last week as if it were Paul Nelson trying to help me understand, there’d be a place in my heart for The Rules of the Game.