La Règle de Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)

“You forget she belongs to society; the rules are strict”


Introduction

The only film that has featured consistently in the Top 10 of the Sight & Sound poll since 1952 is La Règle de Jeu. Translated as The Rules of the Game, this film has an air of authority. Personally, the film could be seen as a perfunctory inclusion in the poll – critics assuming a Top 10 simply wouldn’t be complete without Renoir. Against that, the film explores an interesting social-context and holds a controversial edge as it pre-dated World War II, highlighting the attitudes prevalent in France in 1939. Considering how much I adore the socio-economic themes in The Dark Knight trilogy – and thoroughly enjoy researching the time-period a film is released within, this is a film I am happy to get my teeth into. Prior to production of the film, Jean Renoir himself described the film as “An exact description of the bourgeoisie of our time”. Just what I like – and hate – in equal measure.

Upstairs and Downstairs

Adapted loosely from Alfred de Musset’s ‘Les Caprices de Marianne’, La Règle de Jeu begins as pilot André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) completes an epic flight – which, upon finishing, realises that the woman he loves, Christine (Nora Gregor … reminding me of Kristin Scott Thomas), is not waiting to greet him. The story soon turns into a social gathering, whereby we are introduced to a broad range of characters, with a small group of interlinking stories that cross boundaries of class and social etiquette. Philip Kemp summarises it perfectly in the liner notes for the release:

“André Jurieux… loves Christine, wife of the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). La Chesnaye, for his part, is having a covert affair with socialite Geneviève (Mila Parély). Chesnaye’s gamekeeper, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), is violently jealous of his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Christine’s maid, whom he suspects is dallying with poacher-turned valet Marceau (Julien Carette)”

Interestingly, Renoir himself portrays one character in Octave, a friend of all, who seems to always be the one man attempting to balance and bring order to the complex lives of the various characters – but deep down holds his own candle for Christine. This is a film that stylistically has influenced films including Gosford Park and, despite my own disinterest in the series, Tim Robey writes that it could even be described as “Downton Abbey for film snobs”. But it is this fascinating social-order which, on the one hand remains interesting as a context, but on the other connects to the politics of the time and arguably, the elitism of the upper-class today.

Standing in a doorway

Technically, the film is marvellous. As a private drama, the camera lingers often in the scene – it roams around, almost following someone. If regularly lurks in the doorways and hallways as if we are personally at the gathering leaning on the door-frame, viewing the event. In one marvellous sequence we join the group on a hunt, whereby rabbits and pheasants are shot. Initially, Octave discusses with Jurieux his increasing frustration with Christine – before we view animals at peace, centre frame, enjoying the woodland. As expected, sticks are beaten; horns are blown; the upper-class waits with their rifles. Initially camera-shots are calm and peaceful, but soon the editing picks up in pace. We cut from running rabbits, the camera frantically trying to capture their movement; cut-to a man shooting his rifle, and another man shooting his own gun; cut-to a rabbit’s death and a pheasant flapping helplessly before being mercilessly killed. One rabbit wreaths in pain after the camera has tracked him, before suddenly grinding to a halt and lingering on the death of this poor animal. Seconds later the group talk and laugh about the death of a hunter whose gun exploded on his thigh. So flippant is the idea of death.

“Everything in it – not just the relationships, but also every character’s presumption of their place in the scheme of things – is wobbling on a precipice.” -Tim Robey

Suffice to say the film ends in tragedy. The one character that has spent the entire film attempting to break past the boundaries of social class is the one character that loses his life in the closing act – Richard Pẽna writes how his sacrifice is to ensure that “a corrupt social order can remain intact”. Barry Norman manages to aptly describe the group – indeed the entire sect of society Renoir depicts as “… a decadent society which is already destroying itself” with a subtext that casts a “critical and mocking eye on the state of France and its destructive class system as world war threatened”. The true tragedy was the events that took place in Europe shortly afterwards.

Unsuccessful

On the film’s original release it was panned by the French government and a commercial disaster. Prior to its initial release, it was chopped up and reconfigured to an 88-minute run-time – only to be banned completely. It was only in 1956 before reels of footage was found and reconfigured – to become a 113-minute film, revealed at the Venice Film Festival in 1959 – did it become the classic we know today. It’s also worth noting how the first poll in Sight & Sound was conducted in 1952 … so I question the standard of the print viewed by critics who voted for the film, seven years before the viewing in Venice.

But it is clear that this film is hailed by critics due to the multiple layers that Renoir weaves throughout. It captures a specific area of society over a short period of time – and yet it also presents France, as a country, in a way that was so poignant that it became highly controversial. It is a film that subtly manages to present an important, crucial time-period in a manner that realises how flexible film truly is. When a critic strikes parallels in the deep subtext of a film; when a critic believes they can see through the playfulness of a blockbuster to reveal a deeper meaning that highlights the attitude of the film director. This is a film that clearly demonstrates how cinema should aspire to present bigger, profound and epic issues – and the scale of the story is no limitation.

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