La Règle du Jeu, one of the greatest films in French cinema had a checkered career. When it was first released the critics panned it and the public were outraged. ( When the film opened in 1939, one viewer lit a newspaper and tried to burn the theater down. There were even threats to other theaters.) After six weeks the government banned the film. Rules of the game presents a comedy of manners of an effete class that had outlived its time and relevance. It is like Madame Marian took a look at herself in her cracked mirror and what she saw therein were the shades of de Beaumarchais and de Laclos. The French government stepped in and their argument for the ban was this:”to avoid representations of our country, our traditions, and our race that change its character, lie about it, and deform it through the prism of an artistic individual who is often original but not always sound.” (Bergan, 1992, quoting La Cinématographie française (France’s pre-war trade paper).
Jean Renoir, from the original scenario for The Rules of the Game gives us a clue to the film:
‘The world is made up of cliques, and not just the whole world, but every nation and every city. . . . Each of these cliques has its customs, its mores, indeed its own language. To put it simply, each has its rules, and these rules determine the game’. Renoir’s Game in modern parlance is more democratic and knowing the system is more to be desired than being born to a title. This sytem also have rules.
In Renoir’s eyes, the haute bourgeoise, fattened on privileges and idleness have ceased to feel any genuine emotions. Their estate is a setting for parties and balls and such frenetic pace of the landed gentry who hunts and opens their salons for guests merely hide their boredom with themselves and conjugal life. They are likeable and charming as long as interactions are set on a superficial level. Rules of their class dictate a certain conduct: they may carry on liaisons with wives of others but avoid such passion that might blow their discreet cover.
Renoir does not spare their hollowness in their domesticity or in their sports. Of the latter it is their scant respect for life is in evidence. He satires this aspect in a hunt brilliantly staged in the film. During this scene the servants drive the rabbits, pheasants, and quails through the woods to the ladies and gentleman waiting with shotguns and rifles behind blinds. Renoir establishes pace in this scene by cutting between 51 separate shots in four minutes. Climax of this hunt results in a carnage consisting of 22 rifles shots in 53 seconds resulting in 12 dead animals. Rules of the Game allows mindless sport but passion is no, no. The hunt scene was not included for its shock value but has is counter weight from the serving class. When a gamekeeper goes on a murderous rampage during the party, the houseguests assume it is just part of the entertainment arranged for them. To them, it is all a game. Rules guide the class be it upper or menial.
Renoir’s concern with class distinctions we see in some form or other in his films. La Grande Illusions dealt with ‘the Gentleman’s War’ that would take the aristocratic class to oblivion. In Rules of the Game there is no central character but several from the upper and the lower classes to juxtapose how each class deals with jealousy and cuckoldry.
After a record-breaking flight, André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) returns to France but is heart-broken when the woman he loves, Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Grégor), is not there to meet him. His friend, Octave (Renoir), manages to have the aviator André invited to the Chesnayes’ country mansion for a weekend of hunting and partying. Christine’s husband, Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye(Marcel Dalio), has a secret affair, and he has invited his mistress, Geneviève (Mila Parély), for the weekend. He wants to break off their affair. Octave, who has had a crush on Christine since she was a girl, warns André that he cannot expect to win Christine, for that would breach the ‘rules of the game’.
There is another love triangle among the lower class servants. It involves Christine’s maid Lisette, Lisette’s husband Schumacher (Gaston Modot), who is gamekeeper at La Coliniere, and a poacher named Marceau, newly taken on as a domestic (over the objections of Schumacher) by the Marquis. Lisette is interested in any man other than her husband. She lives most of the time in Paris with the mistress, Christine, while her husband spends most of his time on the country estate. Secondary characters include a retired general (Pierre Magnier), a country neighbor, the chef, and various other servants and guests.
Whilst the party is in full swing, the Chesnayes’ gamekeeper, Schumacher, discovers that his wife, has been flirting with Marceau, and his jealosy gets the better of him…
‘In Renoir’s art, every line of dialogue, every action, every detail of dress, gesture, posture and setting needs to be taken into account if story, theme and characterisation are not to be misunderstood… Christine in La Règle du jeu convincing Geneviève she’s known all along about the latter’s affair with her husband. Some viewers believe her, despite the fact that her voice is shrill with strain, and other sequences clearly establish she has not been aware of the relationship until that afternoon’.(quoted from senses of cinema- James Leahy)
Marquis Robert: [to Schumacher] I have no choice but to dismiss you. It breaks my heart, but I can’t expose my guests to your firearms. It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives.
Robert: Corneille! Put an end to this farce!
Corneille, le majordome: Which one, your lordship?
* Director Jean Renoir recut the film numerous times, due to poor initial reception and damage to the negatives during World War II.
* Despite now being considered by many historians one of the best films made, the picture almost became a lost art. Claiming that it was bad for the morale of the country (due to impending war), the French government banned the film about a month after its original release. When Germany took over France the following year, it was banned by the Nazi party as well, who also burnt many of the prints. Allied planes then accidentally destroyed the original negatives. It was thought to be a lost picture. In 1956, some followers of director Jean Renoir found enough pieces of the film scattered throughout France to reconstitute it with Renoir’s help. Renoir claimed only one minor scene was missing from the original cut.
After the success of _Grande Illusion, La (1937)_ and _ Bête humaine, La (1938)_, Jean Renoir and his brother Claude helped set up their own production company, Les Nouvelles Editions Francaises. This was their first production.
The Disturbing Relevance of Renoir’s La Régle du Jeu
:: Travis Else ::
An axiom that European’s have used for years to slight America is “The United States has no history.” To which most Americans reply “That may be true, but Europe has no future.”
Despite our recent financial troubles (which have been slight, in fact, compared to our European allies’ woes), the U.S. still maintains such an overwhelming advantage in terms of economic prosperity, technological advancement, and overall vibrancy, many Europeans cringe to think that
perhaps the U.S. has assumed a position of superiority in matters of culture. I believe the U.S. has perhaps succeeded Europe in adopting amoral social mores, as well.
Watching Jean Renoir’s classic film La Régle du Jeu (aka The Rules of the Game) last night, I was struck by how much the United States has become like France of the early 20th century: disaffected, disillusioned, materially consumed, godless, and almost exclusively amoral. What is more, the current populace lacks the one merit, if it may be called that, of the 1930’s French aristocracy: class.
Ultimately, La Régle du Jeu follows Renoir’s theme in of exposing the idiocy of class structure. Where as Grande Illusion laments the absurdity of war as it mocks warmongers, La Régle du Jeu laments amorality as it mocks all social classes: the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and the peasant classes.
Set on the eve of WWI in Paris, the film opens with hero-pilot André Jurieu returning from a record-setting trans-Atlantic flight. Interviewed upon landing, he sadly laments: “I have never been so disappointed in all of my life!” This because his lover has chosen not to meet him at the airport. As we are introduced to the primary players, we find that love is random and arbitrary: husband and wife maintain illicit, though indiscreet liaisons with friends. Renoir makes very clear that, to the aristocracy, love is as Chamfort says: “An exchange of two whims and the contact of two skins.”
Loneliness, alienation, and boredom are expertly conveyed by Renoir through the soulless dialogue of aristocrat Marquis la Chesney and his mistress, Genevieve. Upon telling her that their affair is over, and that he is committing himself to his wife, Genevieve is unmoved, other than to say she wants the Marquis to suffer as she surely will. The Marquis flippantly invites Genevieve to lunch, at which she replies benignly “I don’t know if it’s my emotions, but I’m dying of hunger!”
La Chesney’s wife, Christine, is the lone female of any perceived conscience in the film. The object of pilot Jurieu’s affection and herself a Parisian émigré, she exudes a winsome naiveté in regard to relationships: “You mean, I can’t be nice to a man in Paris without him falling in love with me?” We later learn, of course, that this naiveté is practiced, and not sincere. However, in the first half of the film we are allowed to sympathize with her.
The sadness of the bourgeoisie, here represented by pilot Jurieu, is unsympathetic and selfish. A victim of unrequited love, he considers suicide, and, despite his heroism and celebrity, considers his life a failure for not having won the charms of Christine. As his confidante Octave (Renoir himself acting as conscience of the film) tells him, “She’s a society woman and society has some stiff rules.” These are the rules of which the title speaks, and a profound statement on the idiocy of French society. Whereas it is completely appropriate (and quite expected, in fact) to have a mistress or lover, one must still adhere to the rules of class. For example, when Jurieu does eventually win the heart of Christine, he feels it is his duty to tell her husband, the Marquis, of their tryst: to him it is an obvious act of propriety and grace.
As the relationships continue to unfold in loveless liaisons and manipulative dalliances, even Octave begins to crumble: “(How I wish to disappear) so I could stop worrying about what is right and what is wrong.” Ultimately, each player is burdened with selfish desires and lack of morality. This amorality is shown quite humorously as Christine confronts Genevieve, her husband’s mistress, with the knowledge of their less-than-discreet affair. Both make an attempt at hurt and grief, but in the end simply share a laugh at the Marquis’ one fault (smoking in bed), and become preoccupied with what costumes they shall wear at the evening’s party.
Perhaps the most memorable scene from the movie occurs as the party goes hunting at La Colinière, the Marquis’ country estate. The group of friends, all of them carrying on some sort of affair with another, while away their time hunting rabbits, allowing their servants to root out the hare and pheasants, and taking turns shooting the helpless creatures. It is sporting and banal, exuding a grim pathos that seems to underscore the disillusionment that ultimately results in WWI.
As the story climaxes, we observe directly the lifelessness and depravity of the group. A party-goer exclaims “I’ve had too much to drink and don’t know what I’m doing…” to which her companion replies “Good!” As the dalliances further unfold and emotions surface (in fact, it is the jealous Shumacher, his wife fooling around with a fellow servant, who finally acts on conscience, and seeks to kill his wife’s lover), the party implodes. Aghast at what his soirée has disintegrated into, the Marquis instructs his servant “Corneille, stop this farce!” to which Corneille replies “Which one?”
Altogether it is a pathetic spectacle of depravity and amorality, clashing with the strict social code of the day. Though to carry on an affair is “fun,” to live under the same roof with one’s lover is “immoral.” There are random codes of conduct to which even the valueless must live by. Renoir’s derision of this valueless society begins as comedy, but ultimately ends in tragedy. Regardless of a society’s amorality, there is always a price to pay for that amorality. Which leads me back to my original thesis.
Fifty years ago, the United States could be stereotypically described as nothing other than a puritanical society (many would argue that this was, to be precise, a society of puritanical hypocrites, but that discussion is for another day). Marriage was a sacred institution. Illicit affairs were not something to be flaunted, despite their existence. As our nation’s history has unfolded, and as we have in fact become the center of world culture and economic might (this can and will be argued by many), we have shed the clothes of morality. An observance a friend and I have visited about recently is the apparent lack of moral structure, primarily in our young people.
This exists to the point of eye-opening sexual promiscuity amongst children, increased violent crimes committed by children, and a general lack of knowledge or interest in living by a firm set of values. This is not a statement of judgment. It is simply an observance. It is an observance that can only lead me to believe that our society is becoming what French society was in the middle of the 20th century: a collection of valueless nouveau riche desperately searching for meaning to the point of exhaustion, and summarily relying on material wealth and passionless relationships to fill a life devoid of meaning. It is a simple adherence to the idea that “Love is temporary, sex is forever.”
La Régle du Jeu is not a film about sex. It is certainly not a film that attempts to pass judgment on society. It is a film about the loneliness and disillusionment of a society. No class is exempt, however all are affected to varying degrees and with varying results. Renoir’s portrait could easily be applied to most social circles in the U.S. today. In fact, Ang Lee’s Icestorm is a film that immediately comes to mind in delving into such issues.
Renoir is a careful observer of the world. His filmmaking, especially in the late 1930’s seemed to be prophetic in its vision of cause and effect. Larger issues were always at stake in his films. By cutting to the minutiae (the unraveling of the gentleman warrior in WWI, the unraveling of class values in early 20th century European society), Renoir was able to comment on the future of his country and continent. And so, we now witness a collection of societies with no identity (the advent of the Euro and broadening of the European Union have seen to this) and very little influence in finance, politics, or culture.(ack.)
* Director: Jean Renoir
* Script: Jean Renoir, Carl Koch
* Photo: Jean Bachelet
* Music: Mozart, Monsigny, Sallabert, Johann Strauss, Saint-Saëns, Chopin, Roger Désormières
* Cast: Marcel Dalio (Robert de la Chesnaye), Nora Gregor (Christine de la Chesnaye), Roland Toutain (André Jurieux), Mila Parély (Geneviève de Marras), Jean Renoir (Octave), Julien Carette (Marceau, le braconnier), Paulette Dubost (Lisette), Gaston Modot (Schumacher, le garde-chasse)
* Country: France
* Language: French
* Runtime: 110 min, B&W