by Daniel Suddes
Le regle du jeu (Rules of the Game) – 1939 Directed by: Jean Renoir Written By: Renoir and Carl Koch Starring: Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Julien Carette, and Jean Renoir. Oscar Count: 0
Jean Renoir ended his life being thought of as a sort of grandfatherly figure in cinema. People would go to him to seek his advice about films. Such a rotund figure was probably thought of as a relatively harmless man who was bristling with information.
But there was a time when Renoir was subversive enough to cause riots in theaters and have his films banned not once, but twice. The Rules of the Game is that time. Renoir made the most direct satire against French society ever made (probably for all time) and was treated as a pariah. If the French are not willing to laugh at one thing, it is themselves. Then the Nazis banned it (probably because the aristocratic character is Jewish) and was thought destroyed by the bombings. It is a miracle the film still exists at all (although one scene has been lost).
That is not enough to declare it one of the greatest films of all time. What does place Rules of the Game in that category is its revolutionary portrayal of class dynamics, at a time when it was very apparent such a belief was about to exist. It is like European aristocracy’s and nationalism’s last known photograph. The fact that people could respond to it so violently still demonstrates the power that it had that late into the twentieth century.
Rules of the Game appears to be a drama at first glance, with the introduction and several love triangles. But the film is also quite funny in its set pieces and laughter appears to be the intention of Renoir. At least, when you see him traipsing around in a bear costume, you will know not to take the material too seriously. But then, can a film of such complexity (as complex as the class relations were) truly be summed up in that way?
No, and that is why the film has been impossible to ignore for decades. Many films struggle to create a true microcosm of society. Rules of the Game makes it appear effortless. The film deliberate does not have a hero, or a center. True, the film opens with the return of an aeronautical hero (and his subsequent moping that his true love is not there to witness his triumph) but then the film shifts focus to the Jewish aristocrat who is married to the aeronaut’s true love. And then his wife. And then a servant who thinks his wife may be having an affair. Then a dinner party. Then a costume party and performances by the guests. And then a murder. No one story is given any more weight or importance. The seeds of Robert Altman’s career were planted with this film, but while Altman used the sort of ensemble to give a sense of grandness to his creations, Renoir does it to reflect the multifaceted society that was about to be joined together in the most violent way possible.
Renoir’s achievement with Rules of the Game is staggering. Sometimes, one must step back and see what an artist had in mind before we realize how good their work is. Rules of the Game is like that for me. I become so absorbed in the characters and the world that I sometimes lose Renoirs message and wonder how people could have had the response they had. But the more times I watch it, the more subversive I realize Renoir was. Such a quality is the sign of a great artist in any medium.
The best scene in the film is the hunting scene, just for the technical aspects alone. Observe how Renoir constantly shifts focus from the shooters to their victims. Look at the angles he uses – how he tries to make the humans look so small in the background and the animals (and their deaths) more significant. Many action films have borrowed this. But the sequence has a much deeper level. Renoir could certainly see the clouds of war looming. Right now, this death was viewed as sport. It makes the scene take on an ironic tone, as Renoir points out how foolish the upper class was being, treating such an activity like a game when it was about to become all too real. It was downright brave to show such an image at a time. I would not be surprised to learn it was this scene that almost caused the audience to burn the theater down.
Did You Know: The film was officially remade as Scenes from a Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. Director Robert Altman also borrowed many of this films themes for his Gosford Park.