It is November, 1932. Gosford Park is the magnificent country estate to which Sir William McCordle and his wife, Lady Sylvia, gather relations and friends for a shooting party. They have invited an eclectic group including a countess, a World War I hero, the British matinee idol Ivor Novello and an American film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the guests assemble in the gilded drawing rooms above, their personal maids and valets swell the ranks of the house servants in the teeming kitchens and corridors below-stairs.
But all is not as it seems: neither amongst the bejewelled guests lunching and dining at their considerable leisure, nor in the attic bedrooms and stark work stations where the servants labor for the comfort of their employers. Part comedy of manners and part mystery, the film is finally a moving portrait of events that bridge generations, class, sex, tragic personal history and culminate in a murder. (Or is it two murders?)
Ultimately revealing the intricate relations of the above and below-stairs worlds with great clarity,Gosford Park illuminates a society and way of life quickly coming to an end.
The Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It is also popularly known as the Hays Code, after Hollywood’s chief censor of the time, Will H. Hays.
The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), which later became the Motion Picture Association of America(MPAA), adopted the code in 1930, began enforcing it in 1934, and abandoned it in 1968, in favor of the subsequent MPAA film rating system. The Production Code spelled out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States. The office enforcing it was popularly called the Hays Office in reference to Hays, and also later the Breen Office, named after its first administrator, Joseph Breen, who took over from Hays in 1934.
The Don’ts and Be Carefuls
Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:
- Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
- Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
- The illegal traffic in drugs;
- Any inference of sex perversion;
- White slavery;
- Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
- Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
- Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
- Children’s sex organs;
- Ridicule of the clergy;
- Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;
And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
The Rules of the Game
- The use of the flag;
- International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
- The use of firearms;
- Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
- Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
- Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
- Methods of smuggling;
- Third-degree methods;
- Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
- Sympathy for criminals;
- Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
- Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
- Branding of people or animals;
- The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
- Rape or attempted rape;
- First-night scenes;
- Man and woman in bed together;
- Deliberate seduction of girls;
- The institution of marriage;
- Surgical operations;
- The use of drugs;
- Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
- Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy.”
Director: Jean Renoir (yes, related to THAT Renoir)
Starring: Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir
1939The Rules of the Game is a difficult film to review for its sheer enormity. Right up there with Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather, it is consistently considered one of the ten best films ever made. The only reason you may never have heard of it before is the fact that it’s French, and American audiences aren’t the keenest when it comes to foreign films, but it is a daunting subject for any lover of film to undertake. After all, what can I possibly say about The Rules of the Game that hasn’t already been said elsewhere?The answer to that difficult question (the question which, by the way, has kept me from writing about the other great films mentioned above) is to regale the reader with my personal relationship with the film. When I first saw The Rules of the Game, it didn’t have much impact. I took it at face value. Man, if there’s ever a film to be a little patient with in order to peel away the outer layers, it’s this one. I then saw it a second time not long after because it was playing on the big screen. Still not that much of an impact. Years passed, and although I had the presence of mind to pick up the DVD when it went on sale, the DVD went unwatched… until today. I did a little bit of reading before watching it, watched the introduction on the DVD by the director, and suddenly found myself entranced, moved, and unexpectedly crying at the end of the film. Now I am starting to understand The Rules of the Game. Now I am feeling its impact.At face value, The Rules of the Game is a comedy of manners. The plot centers around married couple Christine (Gregor) and Robert La Chesnaye (Dalio) and their respective lovers, Andre (Toutain) and Genevieve (Mila Parely). A group of guests are invited to La Chesnaye’s country estate for a hunting party. There are machinations, secrets, revelations, and, ultimately, a tragedy. The lives of the servants downstairs imitate those of their masters, as Christine’s maid Lisette finds herself juggling more than one man as well. It’s very Gosford Park in this respect – as a matter of fact, these two films would make a damn near perfect double feature.Why, then, if The Rules of the Game is a simple comedy of manners, was it so controversial upon its initial release? It was hated – vocally hated, despised, and reviled upon its initial release, which lead to Renoir desperately but uselessly trying to recut the film in order to please his audience. The original print of the film was ultimately lost during World War II, but thanks to film restorers in the fifties, a very close version to the initial one was reconstructed. Almost two decades after the fact, the film received the critical admiration that was completely lacking in its initial run.
The reason for the controversial nature of the film is Renoir’s very vocal statement about his hatred for the elite wealthy bourgeoisie. He calls it a corrupt, rotten section of society, doomed to lead everyone to what he calls “minor catastrophes” in his introduction to the film. With this unconcealed venom in mind, it gave me a different spin on the film. I had always viewed it as a comedy of manners, a level on which the film does work. However, watching Renoir talk with malice about upper class society, it started to shed a new light on the plot devices in the film. It was odd, but it really was as if someone had drawn back the curtain from my eyes and I saw the film in a new light. That hatred is written all over the screen. Given France’s history with the upper class and the film’s historical context (released in 1939, after all), it is easy to see that the public wanted nothing to do with a film so vehement in its animosity towards France’s own ruling class.
The film is populated with dozens of characters (again making a good pairing with Altman’s Gosford Park), which Renoir treats with an odd stoicism. Considering the strength of the hatred that Renoir himself articulates, there is a feeling of “judge for yourself” when it comes to the characters. The people in the film are not caricatures, but really feel like fully formed people. With this detachment in mind, it was doubly unsettling for me to finally “find” the anger in the film. It is not obviously painted across the opening shots, but buried beneath the surface, roiling in its passion.
All this vehemence is centered around the idea of love, easily the central theme of the film for me. Andre Jurieu is a national hero, and the film opens on him as he just completed a transatlantic flight in under 24 hours. The press crush around him, desperate for an interview over the radio. However, he immediately zeroes in on his pal Octave (Renoir himself), who sadly tells Andre that his lover, Christine, did not come to meet him at the airstrip. Andre is crushed, disappointed, upset, and hotly tells the press that despite his heroic journey, he is saddened because of a woman. Andre is in many ways the key to understanding the film. He is the most sincere and ardent character, the character who idealizes love, who views it as a noble and righteous principle. He cares nothing for practicality, but embodies a noble spirit. He follows rules of chivalry. In many ways, he is like the knights of old who would say they would die for the love of their lady fair. Andre is all of these things, and he is the most soundly mocked character in the entire movie. All of these noble ideals about love and passion are viewed as childish and completely unnecessary by the ruling class. His lover even complains of Andre being “too sincere.” Too sincere? I wasn’t aware there was such a thing. Andre is constantly at odds, then, with his lover and the world she inhabits because he is too idealistic. He refuses to play the game of love, instead preferring the headlong noble passion of love. This concept of love is far too inconvenient for the wealthy class, so Andre’s fate is sealed. That these people treat him with such utter contempt is infuriating. Yes, Andre is a bit much. He is meant to be. One rather wants to pull a Cher fromMoonstruck, slap him across the face, and tell him to “Snap out of it!” Yes, he is childish as well. However, he is idealistic, and a national hero. And he is in no way worthy of the treatment he receives.
If Andre doesn’t fit within the world of the ruling class, neither does Octave, but for different reasons. If Andre is the over the top but noble knight, then Octave is his sensible squire, the person who sees every single character around him for their true selves. He is the jester of the piece, the clown, calling characters out in a hidden manner, and then manipulating them in return for certain favors. Octave is the only character who moves fluidly between the upstairs and the downstairs, befriending both the wealthy and their servants. Unlike Andre, he understands the cruel rules of the game of love that is played by the wealthy, and he utilizes this knowledge to move people around. Although he understands these cruel rules, he doesn’t necessarily believe in them. In easily the most devastating sequence of the film, Octave lets his usual guard down for a moment and admits to also being in love with Christine, someone he has known since childhood. (Is EVERY male character in love with Christine? She’s a French Mary Sue… but that’s part of the point of her character…) Christine admits to also being in love with Octave; surprising, given his lack of social standing, lack of riches, lack of youth, and lack of looks. Is she being serious? We do not know. Instead, we view the scene through Octave’s eyes, as he suddenly emits a light that shines brilliantly bright. He rushes back to the house to get Christine’s coat so they can run away together, where he is stopped by Christine’s maid, Lisette (who also had an affair with Octave). Lisette, who is more enamored of her mistress than she is her husband, admonishes Octave, saying that in love, “the young are for the young, and the old are for the old.” She tells Octave point blank that he cannot make Christine happy. He stops. His shoulders hunch over. We see the reality of the situation overcome him, and that Lisette’s words have hit the nail the on the head. At that moment, Andre reappears, Octave sees him, and sees that this noble, handsome hero is the one for Christine, not himself. This is the one scene in the film that shows a character who is legitimately in love. Real love. Not an ideal, not a cruel game, but real, rooted love. It is brief and utterly heartbreaking, and throws all the other cold, calculated actions of the film into harsh contrast. Renoir’s portrayal of Octave is devastating and quite possibly the best performance in the entire film. For a director to create such a powerful film while also providing such a powerful performance is amazing.
There is so much more to this film. While watching it, I took notes – copious notes – about certain scenes, certain lines, certain shots. There is so much depth to the film, so much more than I articulated here. Again, this is an instance of having too much to talk about while also knowing that it’s all been said before. This film is a true classic, a true Top Ten Film. It took a couple viewings, I admit, but now the profundity of The Rules of the Game is starting to sink in. It made me angry, upset, and very very sad. Unexpected feelings for what is, at face value, a comedy of manners.Gosford Park
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: um… everyone… including Michael Gambon (Dumbledore!), Maggie Smith (McGonagall!), Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Stephen Fry, Ryan Phillippe, Kristin Scott Thomas
2001There are many many films that are my favorites, but Gosford Park is a favorite on a different level. I have such affection for this movie, such fondness, and feel very passionately about it; this sort of affection is reserved for precious few films. In rewatching it after having not seen it for at least five years, I was pleased and relieved to find it just as captivating and enchanting as it was when I first watched it.Gosford Park is a classic Upstairs Downstairs tale, this time with a murder mystery angle. Members of the British aristocracy descend on Sir William McCordle’s (Gambon) country estate for a shooting party. Nearly every guest who arrives brings with them their servants, and soon, there is a crowd of people in the house. After a night and a day of finding out about all these people’s lives, everything is upended when Sir William is found stabbed in his study. Suddenly, it’s a whodunit with about forty suspects, all with their own motives and machinations.This is not a movie about story or plot. This is a movie about characters and motivation. The amazing thing about it is that, despite the sheer number of characters, each one is amazingly well formed and completely thought out. That’s what I adore about this film. Despite there being dozens of characters more than most movies, not a single person is superfluous. No one is there simply for window dressing. Each has a story to tell, and, as one says to another, “We all have something to hide.” No one is open; each of these people has some hidden secret.
Some of my favorite characters include: Mabel Nesbitt, the poor wife of the poor relation who only has one evening gown and is looked down on by the other guests, but feels special for a moment when she shares the piano bench with the famous movie star Ivor Novello. Elsie (Watson), the housemaid who has a surprising amount of power among the downstairs crew, but this power is all for naught when she accidentally outs her affair with the master of the house and she is fired. Mary (MacDonald), the guide of the film, who is a new maid for Constance Trentham (Smith) with her naivety showing in every scene, also turns out to have a knack for sniffing out the truth. Robert Parks (Owen), the mysterious valet who oozes sex appeal and a history growing up in an orphanage. When he passionately kisses Mary, the screen crackles with the intensity. This was Clive Owen before he became Clive Owen.
The stories of each character, despite not having a lot of lines, are communicated more than clearly through glances, motions, and the tiniest ever of raised eyebrows. Just as there are no superfluous characters, there are no superfluous actions. Every word carries tremendous weight, and every action has a meaning. This is a film that demands your attention; if you do not give it at any moment, you are liable to miss something of tremendous import. Because of this, Gosford Park is the rare film that rewards multiple viewings. Most films tire out after two or three times through. Not Gosford Park; it is truly a tapestry of a film, with dozens of character stories woven together
There is a profound sense of one’s place in the world in the film. This is, after all, about the British aristocracy and their help. These are some of the proudest people in the world, in both categories. This sense of pride and place is illustrated most clearly by Ryan Phillippe’s character, Henry Denton. When Denton arrives, he explains that he is the Scottish valet for the Hollywood producer invited for the weekend. However, there is something unusual about him. He is curious, and asks question after question. When Sir William is murdered, it turns out that Denton is no Scottish servant, but an American actor doing research for the role of a valet. He is immediately shunned by everyone for this ruse. The servants hate him; they feel he intruded on their world when he had no right. The aristocracy dislikes him; they have gotten used to treating him as a servant, and now he is one of their own. As an American, he cannot understand their negative reaction; a maid in his room tells him plainly, “You cannot play on both sides at once.”
Apart from the brilliant characters and setting, there is a surprising sexuality in the film that helps elevate the film from a Masterpiece Theatre drama to profound film. Sex is a great secret in the household; who is sleeping with whom, and what boundaries are being crossed when it happens? There is more than one occasion of a couple being walked in on. Flirtations and sidelong glances are rife throughout. Especially interesting is Denton, who makes a simple comment to his Hollywood producer implying that these two men have some sort of sexual relationship; Denton then immediately runs off to sleep with Kristin Scott Thomas’ lady of the house. Clive Owen’s hot kiss with Kelly MacDonald is actually one of the tamer moments.
Altman’s trademark conversational style is on full display here. Characters talk over one another instead of taking turns; the camera is fluid and constantly moving, roaming around the crowded parlor from one conversation to another, entering the dialogue at different points of the discussion. Apparently, many of the British actors were not used to doing such an improvisational and conversational style of filmmaking. One would never know; there is a tremendous ease in the film.
This was my first ever Robert Altman film, and it remains my favorite. I have no doubt that the primary reason for this is the sheer British-ness of the film. In terms of Altman and his legacy as a filmmaker, I believe very strongly that this is one of his most accessible films. It contains all the classic Altman features, but there is a cohesion and a directness about it that is not always in his films.
Peter Bradshaw sees Robert Altman play Cluedo.
The idea of yet another 1930s country-house drama peopled exclusively by distinguished English character actors sounds like a living death. The number of star names generally has an inverse relation to the actual thrill they collectively deliver; everyone just distracts from each other’s prestige. Add to that the antique cars sweeping up the gravelly drive, the chatelaine’s languid ennui, the cheeky footman, the mob-capped parlourmaid, and finally the comedy detective investigating the body in the library… well, it should be cliche hell, the sort of material the late Anthony Shaffer used sheepishly to write for those later Agatha Christie mysteries.
But it isn’t. The tired old Cluedo genre has turned out to suit Robert Altman’s ensemble approach nicely, shaping it, giving it discipline. Altman is sure-footed in this alien habitat, and the film – entertaining, and amusing if insubstantial – has a similar feel to Alan Bridges’s The Shooting Party or James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day. It would almost be quicker to list the big names who aren’t in it (they were off doing Harry Potter), but the director keeps them all more or less in check, and something in the brassbound typecasting prevents anyone showing off too much.
Michael Gambon is the glowering master of Gosford Park, Kristin Scott Thomas his elegant, disaffected wife. Below stairs, Clive Owen and Kelly Macdonald come worryingly close to a John Alderton/Pauline Collins double act. Ryan Phillippe, as the mysterious Scottish manservant, joins the list of leading men (including Ralph Fiennes and Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies) whose head is the wrong shape for a bowler hat.
Inevitably, there is one performer who blows them away with a deliciously unpleasant, scene-stealing performance, and that’s Maggie Smith as the vain, mean Countess of Trentham. While Jeremy Northam, playing Ivor Novello, croons interminably at the piano, Dame Maggie remarks acidly over a hand of cards at the opposite table: “What a large repertoire.” Of someone’s frock, she smiles sweetly: “Difficult colour, green…”
Once the murder is committed, quite late in the film, it all becomes very broad and you can see the ending a mile away. There’s nothing in the way of psychological insight or social comment; but Gosford Park is never dull, and it runs as purringly as an antique Bentley.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited
Denise has written a review of Gosford Park and I just thought I’d add it here for all to read:
“As I sat down to view Gosford Park with Becky and Gina the thought crossed my mind, “Could the film live up to its hype?” Five minutes in and Becky leant over and gushed in my left ear “This is wonderful!” I nodded my agreement. The film is deliciously wicked as it allows the viewer to observe the idiosyncrasies of people who are unaware they process any. The plot is not overly complex and is certainly not the strength of this movie. The structure of this film is in its interplay of characters and the contrast between the vital world below stairs and the bored existence of the upper classes. The introduction of an American into this world provides an alien perspective though which the audience can identify.
One of the complexities of the film is in remembering who’s who, especially upstairs. “Which one’s Lord Stockton?” whispered Gina in my right ear. And a discussion on the journey home revealed that Becky believed Sylvia’s sister was her daughter, which would have given her a very odd relationship with Bill! My advice is to pay attention to those casual introductions – you will be tested later!
I also wished that I had known more about the Charlie Chan movies that the Americans supposedly produced. Research afterwards revealed that there were a series of thirties B movies in which a Chinese detective competently solved crimes. Thus Stephen Fry’s bumbling detective is an antithesis of this fictional character. Perhaps there is an element of truth in that a modern audience, used to watching TV detectives gather evidence and solve crimes, are more knowledgeable about the methods of deduction than a nineteen-thirties, English, police inspector would have been. As Stephen Fry’s performance has been highlighted in several reviews as the weakest link perhaps I am looking to justify it. However as the audience I was with definitely found it amusing perhaps that is sufficient justification for its presence.
One of the “advice-bytes” a writer is always reading is “show, don’t tell.” Early in the movie Elsie (Emily Watson) warns Mary (Kelly MacDonald) of “George’s wandering hands.” However throughout the movie there is no indication of this vice from George (Richard E Grant). Although nicotine addiction and a willingness not to waste good wine are displayed! In a film of outstanding performances of course Richard’s was one of my favourites, with his malicious remarks and permanent expression of disdain there was a definite edge to his presence in any scene. Another character I enjoyed watching was Mabel, the wife of the obnoxious Nesbit (James Wilby) who had only been invited to make up numbers. She is the female outsider in this upper class habitat and is easy to overlook as unimportant. No character in this tableau is unimportant. The most memorable dialogue is in the expert hands of Maggie Smith who delivers it with such a wonderful, naivety that she reminded me of my 7 year old, who seems to specialise in outrageous comments issued in total innocence.
My impression, from the Altman Omnibus, was that the director wanted to remove that “air of knowing” which permeates most period dramas. In the finished product I was aware of his success in this endeavour. The film is a glimpse into a moment of people’s lives. Everyone is busy with their own lives, and, particularly with the staff, we are conscious of their individuality. There are reflections on the past, but there is a stronger awareness of the present. The future has not happened yet. The death of the master may force the sale of the house, there may be a trial, a film may be made and a war may be coming, but in the meantime the silver has to be polished, and meals cooked and served.
Finally, before you all think this hierarchical society is part of British history. I recently viewed a documentary on Windsor Castle where a servant was measuring the distances between place settings, for a banquet, exactly as George had in Gosford Park. A dying breed yes, but please do not make the mistake of thinking it extinct yet.”