La Regle du jeu

(The Rules of the Game, France - 1939)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Roland Toutain, Nora Gregor, Jean Renoir, Marcel Dalio, Paulette Dubost, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, Mila Parely
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Carl Koch & Jean Renoir
Cinematography: Alain Renoir, Jacques Lemare, Jean Bachelet, Jean-Paul Alphen
Composer: -

Rarely do we come across a movie that doesn’t simply alternate between it’s polar opposite tones, in this case including as light and heavy, pleasant and brutal, but more startlingly manages to be both at once. Jean Renoir doesn’t even set friendship and betrayal in opposition, but rather uses the combination of both to create an uneasy tension that demonstrates how the inability to find happiness and quell loneliness creates the temporary desire for illusory alliances. Renoir shows the bourgeoisie to be so detached and impersonal that all treaties are inherently temporary. The most obvious example is Christine de la Cheyniest (Nora Gregor), who declares her love for no less than four men in one night, but Renoir utilizes it more for the male relations. As everything is an object to be attained, collected, affairs don’t render any lasting hatred. There’s jealousy, but it never transcends the covet thy neighbors property level, so it’s quickly gotten over when you need a little companionship or understanding. The characters are too lonely and bored to hold grudges, so if they find themselves alone with each other they find some common ground and get along, even if they attempted to shoot the person in cold blood a minute ago.

Perhaps no one would expect their film to be as poorly received as The Rules of the Game was. The premier was so reviled that fistfights erupted and someone even tried to burn the theater down, and the film was banned as “demoralizing” after closing in just three weeks. Obviously when you hold a mirror to a society you find to be morally bankrupt they probably aren’t going to send you roses, but I think one of the main reasons Renoir’s portrait of upper class mischief and misdeeds was deemed so offensive is it’s told so casually and seemingly without focus or obvious hatred. Often something that’s completely one-sided and obvious is beyond contempt due to being too predictable and politicized to be taken seriously; you write it off as the usual unenlightened dribble from the Neanderthals. Renoir said, “I just wanted to make a movie, even a pleasant movie, but a pleasant movie that would at the same time function as a critique of a society I considered rotten to the core.” Rules of the Game is often light, and indeed pleasant, which is disarming. Even though they know full well they are viewing a hunting scene, the audience doesn’t expect a brutal slaughter as previously the film was largely a polite satire. The shifting tones keeps the movie unpredictable, as well as the characters from being the usual cardboard cutouts we see in these types of films.

Even if we look past the fact Jean Renoir is one of the greatest filmmakers, it seems difficult to truly loath one of his works as he’s such a humanist. Renoir seems incapable of hating anyone even though he knows they are up to no good. His movies never have any black and white characters, as he doesn’t believe in heroes and villains, but rather that there’s some good and bad in everyone. His films, and thus his camera, are always objective. It may seem that Renoir often shows the characters in Rules of the Game in the worst possible light, but that’s because humans are deeply flawed. On the other hand, it may seem that Renoir is too sensitive and sympathetic, but that’s because everyone has their virtues. Renoir plays the game as well, and does so with finesse. He’s much less civil than he comes across due to the casualness and detachment of the script and cinematography. The most dangerous people are the ones who often come across as affable and amiable. Though we probably come out of the film thinking the characters are foolish and absurd childish buffoons, there’s too much pathos to truly dislike any of them.

The seeming good nature and light touch of Renoir makes the emotional wallop certain scenes are able to pack that much more surprising. Renoir lulls us into this world of indifference, which seems to set us up to react in kind. Yet we somehow wind up reacting to needless slaughter of animals and finally a man, the latter of which symbolically dying in the same fashion as the rabbits did during the hunt - complete with the little side roll - more passionately and intensely than normal. There are abrupt shifts of tone that get us, but again as Renoir manages to have things both ways simultaneously, it’s more that the brutality is so intrinsic to this society it’s generally as unnoticeable to the characters as their heart beating. This fundamental indecency imbues the audience with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. We are disgusted by what we cannot control, and that much more so by the fact we can’t make anyone acknowledge there was a loss, even a mere sacrifice. In a sense, this futility allows us to understand how the complacency of the upper class is bred.

The feeling of powerlessness is bred by the manner in which the film is shot. It sometimes feels as though it’s a tease, as there’s often multiple characters doing their own thing in different portions of the screen. At times there are two fairly distinct stories going on simultaneously, but usually they comment upon or add to one another in some manner that is more important in serving the portrait Renoir is painting than individually. The characters are arranged horizontally rather than vertically to not only maintain the depth of field, but also have the secondary action in the background be at least as compelling as what’s in the foreground so as to create a disturbance.

Not only refusing to use traditional method of editing, which tend to establish the audience’s place in the proceedings and provide the perspective of a characters involved, rather than cut at all the camera often just glides off to another group of people, seemingly whenever the operator gets bored (a technique that clearly influenced Jacques Tati). The lengthy unbroken takes are made possible by a number of strategies including deep focus photography, tracking shots, and the well timed choreography of the characters moving in and out of the wide open rooms and long narrow corridors. They provide multiple viewpoints, allowing Renoir to not associate too closely with anyone, which can be disconcerting as the viewer isn’t allowed to forge any alliances (a motif of the upper class world itself) and is denied the idea the film is simply serving their interests and needs. Even though we learn as much from the surrounding action as from the characters who are center stage, we may reject the denial of our “free will”, as we are so used to convention we don’t like the delusion we are in control to be shattered, and thus rebel on principle.

It’s often difficult to pinpoint precisely why a Renoir film is so good, as his art works by blending aspects of every type of art form into a whole without putting any of the disparate elements at the forefront. I’m skeptical Rules of the Game is Renoir’s best work, but if that is the case, it’s likely due to Renoir not limiting his composite preference to the telling of the story. Renoir refuses to choose a main character to the point one could argue any one of seven characters is the most important. This rejection of the typical grounding method allows Renoir’s film to be societal rather than personal; Rules of the Game provides an overall impression of the upper class, which is all the more infuriating to those who wish to be enraged.

The rules and the game are never stated, and in fact largely self determined, though the basis is to keep up appearances by keeping private affairs from becoming public. This is a cruel, corrupt, and dehumanizing upper class society that has set up unspoken rules in order to hide behind them. There’s no morality in them, no desire to be honest, just, or forthright. No one considers the consequences of their actions, except in relation to the rules. As Octave says, "The government, radio, newspapers, advertising, everyone lies, so why shouldn't simple people tell lies as well?"

It’s tempting to say the game is forbidden passion, as just about everyone in the film is at least trying to have illicit affairs, but I’d say it’s survival. You are allowed to play a game that allows anything and everything as long as you conceal all that’s distasteful - your debauchery and your hatred - behind the facade of politeness and civility. It’s about trying to have it both ways, which makes it universal.

The upper class may be lazy and not particularly intelligent, for instance even after her explanation Jackie’s (Anne Mayen) study of Pre-Columbian art is determined by Madame de la Bruyere (Claire Gerard) to be “Buffalo Bill”, but the servants have no moral high ground on their masters. One could make the case that they are worse, as while the upper class will compliment you then stab you in the back, at least they don’t go around shooting anyone, much less the wrong man. The primary difference between the wealthy and the indigent is quite simply the rich make the rules and thus succeed, while the poor are subject to their whims, consistent only in their desire to exclude them, and thus crushed.

In addition to class, the concept of honor is at the heart of the film. In the 1930’s nobility still took precedent over love. The irony is these rich men who value honor above all else, merely pretend to be the epitome of it, while actually having none. Hence, the rules allow you to choose as many lovers as you’d like, you simply have to due it without publicly staining everyone’s character. Of course, cuckold status is quickly well known, it’s simply never broadcast.

The seeming star of The Rules of the Game is Andre Jurieu (Roland Toutain), a middle-class aviator who skyrockets to success mimicking Charles Lindberg’s nonstop transatlantic flight. I think one reason Renoir’s films tend to be underrated is they have an ironic nature that can fly right by, as he allows the audience to find the ridiculousness of the situation. The fact that his “hero” Jurieu is making the journey 12 years later when aviation has improved to the point it’s no big deal - he’s actually able to make the trip in just 23 hours compared to Lindberg’s 33 ½ - shows the absurdity of the media’s desire to trump up any sort of celebrity to sell copies. Renoir even gets Lise Elina, a famous radio reporter of the time, to do the documentary style scene.

Initially honest, too much so for his own good, a heartbroken Jurieu eschews the usual cliches, instead using his post flight interview time to declare his disappointment over the meaninglessness of his journey due to the woman he made it for not even bothering to be present for his triumphant arrival. The fact that Christine’s married doesn’t seem to occur to him, but this is the prime example of sincerity in the film, as Jurieu begins to attempt to conform to the rules once he’s amongst the upper class players. It also sets up the motif of the outsider constantly making the wrong decision due to failing to comprehend the laws of the land.

It’s no secret to the audience that Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio) doesn’t want Jurieu at his hunting party, but a motif of the film is the official story is always an aggrandizing and celebratory whitewashing. After having an affair with Genevieve (Mila Parely) for the duration of his marriage, the threat of Jurieu brings Robert to the realization he actually loves his Austrian wife Christine and would like to dump Genevieve. Bumbling jester of a peacemaker and go between Octave (Jean Renoir in a showstealing performance), who is best friends with Andre but also very close with the de la Cheyniest’s, agrees to help break off the relationship with Genevieve in exchange for Andre’s invitation. Though suddenly a bitter rival of Andre’s, Robert of course plays by the rules in public, maintaining the heroic tone of the media, and thus setting it for his complaint guests.

Andre believes you can’t run off with another man’s wife without an explanation, but if that’s a rule, it’s merely his own. It goes against the way the society is set up, as everything is secretive, impersonal, and non-confrontational. One of the best lines in the film is Christine’s response to Octave asking her what Andre did to her to make her already not know if she loves him. She says, “He kept talking... about propriety”, which is that much funnier because even though she’s an outsider, unlike Andre she’s been amongst them long enough to realize there’s nothing moral, or in fact proper, about the rules of this society.

The film is built around a pair of two men and one woman love triangles, which run fairly parallel. Both feature a fickle woman (Christine de la Cheyniest/Lisette) who loves everyone, her husband (Robert de la Cheyniest/Edouard Schumacher), and a lower class male (Andre Jurieux/ Marceau) who vies for the woman’s fancies from the first moment in her presence. Status is the important piece of the equation, as association with the upper class leads to “respectability” and thus the immediate corruption of Andre & Marceau (Julien Carette), who will never be accepted and thus will soon be crushed for trying. Robert & Schumacher (Gaston Modot) will be the ones to maintain (class) order, which requires vanquishing the interlopers. As Robert is a Marquis he can simply supply the air of pleasantness and respectability to all the proceedings through his clever manipulation of the language, for instance recasting premeditated murder as a “horrible accident”. Gamekeeper Schumacher doesn’t command the respect of the upper class, so he must at least threaten force to keep people in line. Of course, the gamekeeper is always dealing with not only a lower class than his boss, but also than himself as those who live in a chateau aren’t going to risk being caught poaching. As ex-poacher Marceau’s transformation shows, once you are in the grand house, even if only as a lowly servant, your basic needs are met so you shift to desires, move from rustling animals for survival to appropriating woman for amusement.

The Rules of the Game is a very humorous film, though again it’s comedy is largely unconventional. There are a few great lines, for instance after Schumacher chases Marceau around the house trying to gun him down, Robert tells him, “I have no choice but to dismiss you. It breaks my heart, but I can’t expose my guests to firearms. It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives.” For the most part, the entertainment is derived from the interruption of one form of communication by another (their lives and their entertainment are often at odds). It lies in the way the multitude of characters results in a constant intrusion, their actions and movements altering or distracting from the main scene in the foreground. Usually the performers, secondary players, and technology (such as the radio) remain in the background, but at times they are so boisterous as to steal the foreground. It’s funnier when the visuals are at odds with the audio, for instance Octave sneaks in to steal his new love Christine from her other lovers Robert & Andre at the very moment they are celebrating his friendship. The movie is built upon such ironies, the most prominent of which is Christine discovering Genevieve and Robert’s affair, which everyone has known about for years, by viewing their hug through her field glasses during the hunt, an embrace that marks the end of the affair which Christine assumes is instead the beginning of the fling. Of course, Renoir transcends mere comedy, utilizing these setups to subtly comment on the society, whose number one value is to go unnoticed unless you are supposed to be the center of attention.



* Copyright 2008 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *