In the late 1930s, director Jean Renoir had reached an artistic peak he may not have predicted at the dawn of his career. Many early critics viewed the elaborate star vehicles he concocted for his first wife, Catherine Hessling, saw his famous surname, and wrote him off as a dilettante papa’s boy. Instead of retreating to the mediums he worked with before he picked up a film camera, however, Renoir persevered, and the public greeted his work with both acclaim and controversy.
An early collaboration with a socialist street theatre group produced both a filmâ€”La Marseillaiseâ€”and gave Renoir a dawning view of class in France. As a result, class informed much of his work. The fish-out-of-water farce Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu Sauve Des Eaux, 1935) portrayed a petit-bourgeois bookseller forced to put his charity where his mouth is when he saved a half-mad indigent from suicide and takes him in to live with his family. Renoir’s first masterpiece, The Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion, 1938), looked at the ways in which socioeconomic class allowed WWI-era prisoners of war to form friendships, regardless of the country they came from. Inspired by Mozart and Moliere, Renoir’s production company La Nouvelle Edition Francais announced their next production, an original screenplay called Le Regle du Jeu.
The Rules of the Game follows a “clique” (to use Renoir’s word) of the idle rich who retreat to the countryside for a weekend of hunting. Robert de la Chyeniest (Dalio) and his wife Christine (Nora Gregor) invite their friends to “La Collinaire” for a leisurely weekend. Robert’s mistress Genvieve (Mila Parely) invites herself along, and Robert’s friend Octave (Renoir himself) persuades Robert to extend an invitation to Andre Jurieu (Roland Toutain), an aviator who has been romantically linked to Christine. Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette du Bost) attends the weekend in her capacity as servant, and her love triangle mirrors that of her masters. The low regard that one guests holds for the class-based “rules of the game” eventually lead the party to tragedy. A title card places the film in the late 1930s, but viewers might not be able to tell this otherwiseâ€”not merely because of the film’s timeless quality, but also because of the upper-class indifference to the encroaching world war.
Like many films that it influenced, The Rules of the Game has no central character. “The conception I had from the beginning was a film representing society, a group. I wanted to depict a class,” Renoir later said. While The Rules observed haute-bourgeois Parisian society with scathing accuracy, the lower classesâ€”represented here by the servants of the attending guestsâ€”did not escape criticism. Unlike many directors, Renoir depicted the lower classes as neither more stupid nor more noble than their upper-class counterparts. As Roger Ebert observes, “…the working classes emulate [their masters] within their more limited means.” (In a scene around the servants’ dinner table, one chauffeur parrots his master’s anti-Semitic beliefs and statements, and obviously has no idea what he’s talking about. While Renoir deftly draws parallels between Robert and Christine’s strained bond and the unhappiness Lisette feels with her boorish husband, Schumacher, Renoir also portrays their courtship and happiness in deep contrast. The scene in which Jurieu (who has not made his love for Christine a secret arrives at “La Collinaire” is played first for poignance, with a beautiful shot of Christine watching him arrives, and then in a moment of Oscar Wilde-ean wit where she introduces him to the assembled party in possibly euphemistic terms as Robert and Octave stand in the background, trying hard not to laugh. Compare this to the flirtation between Marceau and Lisette, which Marceau initiates with a burst of slapstick violence that seems to extend from Boudu’s antics.
In light of Renoir’s frustration with the indifference of the upper classes, viewers may feel for the characters, almost against their will. The characters feel such palpable unrequited love, as in the scene where Jurieu halfheartedly flirts with Christine’s niece Jackie, or in Octave’s closing scenes with Christine. However, he does balance that all-too-familiar pang with painfully observed moments of upper-class stupidity, such as the throwaway scene in which Jackie and another guest engage in a clueless conversation about “pre-Columbian” art.
Renoir, himself a member of the landed gentry, released La Regle du Jeu into theatres in the fall of 1939. The Parisian audiences may have recognized the characters on the screen as themselves or people they knew. Unfortunately, this recognition came with an explosion of violence. At the premiere, Renoir recalled seeing a man very casually open up a newspaper and light it on fire, with the intention of burning down the theatre. Renoir recut the film to appease audiences, but by this time it was too late. After the Nazis occupied France, the film was suppressed for its anti-patriotic content, and the lab that housed the negatives was bombed during the war. In the 1950s, two film restoration specialists worked to restore The Rules of the Game to its initial glory, and this time out it met with great acclaim.
Renoir’s visionary cinema remains relevant today, and a wide swath of filmmakers claim him as an influence. In particular, directors Wes Anderson (Rushmore) and Rian Johnson (Brick) have picked up his progressive view of class and taken it in their own directions. Anderson and Johnson treat class the same way they might treat weather; it plays an active role in their lives, and both directors devote considerable screen time to the ways in which class affects their characters lives, without making films about class. However, where Anderson and Johnson’s films are marked with whimsy and poignancy, Renoir is able to dig deeper and can show his characters’ shallow moments without himself appearing shallow. His ability to balance moments of personal sadness and political anger, as well as his many other abilities, make this ineffable film relevant even to this day.
France, 1939. 110 min. Nouvelle edition franÃ§aise. Cast: Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Marcel Dalio, Julien Carette, Roland Toutain, Gaston Modot, Jean Renoir; Cinematography: Jean-Paul Alphen, Jean Bachelet, Jacques Lemare, Alain Renoir; Production Design: Max Douy, Eugene Lourie; Costume Design: Coco Chanel; Edited by: Marthe Huguet, Marguerite Renoir; Written by: Jean Renoir, Carl Koch; Directed by: Jean Renoir.