The Rules of the Game – La Règle du jeu (1939)


  • directed by Jean Renoir
  • starring Nora Gregor, Marcel Dalio, Paulette Dubost, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir, Mila Parély, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, Pierre Magnier
  • An assorted cast of characters—the rich and their poor servants—meet up at a French chateau.

“I want to disappear down a hole, so I no longer have to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong.”

It’s daunting to sit down and watch a film like this for the first time and then have to record my impressions. I did a bit of reading on it beforehand, so I knew basically what Renoir was going for—to construct a microcosm of a French society that he saw at the time as “dancing on a volcano.” But the film is so dense and its compositions so busy, that I’ll need to watch it a few more times to begin to absorb it all. I’ve been reading a ton of film rankings since I started this endeavor and I can say that it’s a rare ‘best film ever’ list that you’re reading if you don’t see The Rules of the Game in the top five and now I realize why.

The film is all things at once, endlessly deep yet comically shallow. Coming off of La Grande Illusion and La Béte Humaine, Renoir was interested in moving away from realism, so this one falls about halfway away from that side of the spectrum towards poetry. Its sequences, especially the brutal hunt and the chaotic fallout from the costume pageant, feel every bit as loose and spacious as they do meticulously designed and choreographed. It is the ultimate judgment on a French society that hadn’t yet acknowledged the dark cloud advancing over Europe in 1939, while at the same time carrying the main message that no man is able to judge another. “The terrible thing in this world is that everyone has his reasons,” is a notable line from The Rules of the Game, and the film’s characters swear by it as a philosophy. What a ballsy thing to have written at the dawn of WWII.

A lot of the films I have watched so far can be classified as passive experiences. I can enjoy those films, obviously, but there’s a cap to the level of investment. Somebody like Hitchcock on the other hand has many tricks up his sleeve of bringing the viewer into the film and having them feel a part of the drama or terror.  Renoir achieves the same here by his masterful employment of deep staging, which put equal emphasis on what was happening behind the main conversation, and then at certain times went even further behind that. You’d miss out on a lot of character interactions and even some advancing of individual arcs by just watching the piece of the screen other films have taught should be the main focus. Complicating matters further, there is no main character in the film and you’d think yourself crazy trying to come up with the one person whose mission and worldview is the one Renoir deems chief. Part of me thinks that a knowledge of the French language would have severely impacted my experience, not necessarily for the better, because I was quite enjoying having my eyes tied to the subtitles yet having to dart around to all of the other various attractions. Not only were there different levels visually to keep up with, but I then had to contend with Renoir’s beautiful dialogue, which served the characters and story well while flashing the added symbolism, referring to the country and world at large.

The film’s story and characters are every bit as multi-faceted as its compositions. “Everyone has his reasons,” and here Renoir has given the residents and servants at the estate the reason of love and the avoidance of boredom for everything they do. The residents and guests of La Colinière are comprised of a husband and wife at the center, with admirers, mistresses, and lost loves surrounding them. The group of servants at the house have the same dynamic at play, again both classes on the same footing, with Lisette, Schumacher, and Marceau’s love triangle providing the drama (and hilarity).

Christine and Robert are bored in their marriage and their outside romantic interests are currently not very exciting either. There was the funny scene where, hoping for the result of spontaneously running off with André, Christine admits that she loves him. Instead of an impulsive ‘let’s get out of here,’ response, André takes a more reasonable approach of making sure that their ducks are in a row and the foundation properly set. She then runs into Octave less than a minute later. He asks if she still loves him (still!), to which she replies, “Oh I don’t know anymore.” That’s the brand of love on which this film fixates. It isn’t love ‘til death do us part; it isn’t even love for next week. It’s the attempt at capturing that one bright spark in the very beginning, falling under its spell, and foolishly thinking it gets even better from there.

“Love as it exists in society, is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins,” says Robert’s mistress Genevieve at one point. Octave falls under the same spell with Christine in the conservatory, yet is capable of snapping out of it by having to physically remove himself to get his hat and at the slightest of warnings from Lisette. Anti-commitment. Frivolity. Excess. There’s a lot to chew on in terms of what the film says about love, but like the characters’ own views and behaviors, I don’t think it dives too deep on that particular note. It seems most of all to be the device Renoir used to have these tangled characters get together and serve his grander vision.

By the end, I was frankly exhausted by the depth of it all, yet hours later I’m still bouncing it around my head. The way I’ve been thinking back on it seems to be in line with how Renoir intended—in sort of an abstract, larger than life way. On repeat viewings maybe I’ll get down in the mud with the characters and parse what’s happening on a more micro level, but this time I was just happy to bathe in the general gloomy disillusionment of it all. I was also continually amazed that no matter how dark Renoir’s inspirations for the story were, and as twisted as his character’s actions got, there was a great effervescence to what ended up on screen. Dancing on a volcano, indeed.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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