Detested when it first appeared (for satirizing the French ruling class on the brink of World War II), almost destroyed by brutal cutting, restored in 1959 to virtually its original form, La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) is now universally acknowledged as a masterpiece and perhaps Renoir's supreme achievement. In the four international critics polls organized every ten years (since 1952) by Sight and Sound, only two films have been constant: one is Battleship Potemkin, and the other is La règle du jeu. And in the 1982 poll La règle du jeu had climbed to second place. Its extreme complexity (it seems, after more than 20 viewings, one of the cinema's few truly inexhaustible films) makes it peculiarly difficult to write about briefly; the following attempt will indicate major lines of interest:
Sources. The richness of the film is partly attributable to the multiplicity of its sources and influences (all, be it said, totally assimilated: there is no question here of an undigested eclecticism). It seems very consciously (though never pretentiously) the product of the vast and complex cultural tradition, with close affinities with the other arts, especially painting, theatre and music. If it evokes impressionist painting less directly than certain other Renoir films (for example Partie de campagne or French Can-Can), it is strikingly faithful to the spirit of impressionism, the desire to portray life-asflux rather than as a collection of discrete objects or figures. The influence of theatre is much more obvious, since it directly affects the acting style, which relates to a tradition of French boulevard comedy. Renoir specifically refers to Musset's Les Caprices de Marianne as a source (indeed, it was to be the title of the film at an early stage of its evolution) and to Beaumarchais (the film is prefaced by a quotation from The Marriage of Figaro). This last points us directly to music, and especially to Mozart, whose music opens and closes the film, the "overture" (in fact the first of the "3 German Dances" K.605) accompanying the Beaumarchais quotation. This is perhaps the most Mozartian of all films: it constantly evokes Bruno Walter's remark (in a celebrated rehearsal record of a Mozart symphony), "The expression changes in every bar."
Method. Every frame of La règle du jeu seems dominated by Renoir's personality; yet the most appealing facets of that personality are generosity, openness, responsiveness. As a result, La règle is at once the auteur film par excellence and a work of co-operation and active participation. In Renoir's words, "of all the films I have made, this one is probably the most improvised. We worked out the script and decided on the places we were going to shoot as we went along.…" It is clear that much of the film's complexity derives from its improvisatory, co-operative nature. Renoir cast himself as Octave (a role originally intended for his older brother Pierre), and developed Octave's relationship with Christine, because of his own pleasure in the company of Nora Grégor; the role of Geneviève was greatly extended (originally, she was to have left the château after the hunt) because of Renoir's appreciation of the talent of Mila Parély; the entire sub-plot involving the servants was similarly elaborated during shooting, partly because of Renoir's delight in Carette's characterization.
Stylistics. The film marks the furthest elaboration of certain stylistic traits developed by Renoir since his silent films: the use of off-screen space (see Nöel Burch's seminal account of Nana in Theory of Film Practice); the mobile camera, always at the service of the action and the actors yet unusually free in its movements, continuously tracking, panning, re-framing; the fondness for the group shot, in which several characters (sometimes several diverse but simultaneous actions) are linked; depth of field, enabling the staging of simultaneous foreground and background actions, which often operate like counterpoint in music; the re-thinking of "composition" in terms of time and movement (of the camera, of the actors) rather than static images; the constant transgressing of the boundaries of the frame, which actors enter and exit from during shots. There are various consequences of this practice: 1) Renoir's "realism" (a word we should use very carefully in reference to so stylized a film) – the sense of life continuing beyond the borders of the frame, as if the camera were selecting, more or less arbitrarily, a mere portion of a continuous "real" world. 2) A drastic modification of the habits of identification generally encouraged by mainstream cinema. Closeups and point-of-view shots are rare (though Renoir does not hesitate to use them when he feels them to be dramatically appropriate – interestingly, such usages are almost always linked to Christine). The continual reframings and entrances/exits ensure that the spectator's gaze is constantly being transferred from character to character, action to action. If Christine is gradually defined as the film's central figure, this is never at the expense of other characters, and she never becomes our sole object of identification. 3) The style of the film also assumes a metaphysical dimension, the apprehension of life-as-flux. The quotation from Lavoisier that Renoir applied to his father is apt for him too: "In nature nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything is transformed.…"
Thematics. La règle du jeu defies reduction to any single statement of "meaning." As with any great work of art, its thematic dimension is inextricably involved with its stylistics. Renoir's own statements about the film indicate the complexity of attitude it embodies: on the one hand, "the story attacks the very structure of our society"; on the other, "I wish I could live in such a society – that would be wonderful." People repeatedly quote Octave's line. "Everyone has his reasons," as if it summed up the film (and Renoir), reducing its attitude to a simple, all-embracing generosity; they ignore the words that introduce it: "… there's one thing that is terrible, and that is that everyone has his reasons." As to the "rules" of the title, the attitude is again highly complex. On the one hand, the film clearly recognizes the need for order, for some form of "regulation"; on the other, the culminating catastrophe is precipitated by the application of opposed sets of rules by two characters (who happen to be husband and wife): Schumacher, who believes in punishing promiscuity with death, and Lisette, who believes in sexual game-playing but has rigid notions of propriety in questions of age and income. Not surprisingly, the film plays on unresolved (perhaps, within our culture, unresolvable) tensions and paradoxes: the Marquis "doesn't want fences" (restrictions), but also "doesn't want rabbits" (total freedom). Few films have treated the issue of sexual morality (fidelity, monogamy, freedom) with such openness: a film about people who go too far, or a film about people who don't go far enough?
Release Date: 1939
Starring: Marcel Dalio, Nora Grégor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir, Mila Parély, Paulette Dubost, Gaston Modot, Julien Carette, Anne Mayen, Pierre Nay, Pierre Magnier, Odette Talazac, Roger Forster, Richard Francouer, Claire Gérard, Tony Corteggiani, Nicolas Amato, Eddy Debray, Lisa Elina, André Zwobada, Léon Larive, Célestin, Jenny Helia, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lise Elina, André Zwobada, and Camille François
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Jean Renoir with Camille François and Carl Koch
Source Citation: Wood, Robin. "Règle du Jeu." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 1012-1015.