Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939)
Christopher Sharrett is one of the most perceptive critics currently writing today; his work is dense, brilliantly argued, and interrogates both modern and classical films from a variety of perspectives, using numerous examples of films both old and new to frame his argument. Fortunately for all of us, much of his writing is published directly online, where he often writes for the cutting-edge journal Film International.
Here’s a brilliant piece entitled “False Criticism: Cinema, Bourgeois Society, and the Conservative Complaint,” in which Sharrett argues that
“As the most extraordinary art form of modernity, the cinema’s great accomplishment has been its subversion of various received truths, from conventional notions of sexuality to the workings of time and space, and the undermining of the very concept of being in the age of relativity. As has been demonstrated elsewhere, the cinema offers clear illustrations, often through the very nature of the medium, of the powerful impact of Marx, Freud, and Einstein on dogmas associated with western patriarchal capitalist civilization. Perhaps the greatest, even obsessive, locus of subversion on the part of all cinemas—Hollywood, foreign, avant garde—is the debunking of bourgeois life embodied in the community, the family, the heterosexual monogamous couple, and the larger political-economic system they represent. Films with this concern present the couple and the family not as the social bedrock that dominant civilization has portrayed, but as the conditioning structures that regulate desire, delimit sexual roles (especially for the female), encourage competition and deceit among people, and in short form the basis of the capitalist state.
This subversion has produced a distinguished tradition: Renoir’s Rules of the Game; Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Madame de..; the melodramas of Douglas Sirk; various films by Bunuel, especially The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire, and Belle de Jour; and Pasolini’s remarkable Teorema and Porcile, among many other films. Renoir, Bunuel, and Pasolini, as representative examples, helped create a major oppositional European cinema within a sometimes hostile cultural context (the hostility toward Pasolini may at this writing be seen as rather passive given that many of his films are either unavailable or available in shoddy video editions to the small audience aware of this fine work). We might count most or all of the major films of Hitchcock as sly—sometimes glaringly obvious in the instances of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie—social criticisms. Hitchcock may in fact be the representative figure of the classic Hollywood to critique bourgeois culture from a conservative position, the major concern of these remarks.”
You can read the entire piece here; I’ll be doing more posts on Sharrett’s work in the future. I think he’s one of the most original and perceptive critics at work today in the field. What I particularly like about his work is the sweep of his analysis; he knows it all, from the contemporary to the classical, and thus his analysis is rich, detailed, and thoroughly informed.