The usual description of Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) as a swingeing/coruscating/blistering (or some such) indictment of the ruling class on the eve of the Second World War misses something – it’s a farce, and a funny one, done at breakneck speed. Sure, the swingeing etc etc stuff is there, but it’s more a background, a bass drone. Equally important is what’s going on up top. Here, the brilliance of Renoir’s direction is most obvious.
The plot gathers a bunch of (mostly) highly entitled, frivolous, selfish characters and sequesters them in a chateau for the weekend, where clandestine affairs and class-warfare skirmishes are conducted below radar level while superficially everyone has a really great time – eating, drinking, shooting, putting on a show, playing games, having fun. At the centre are Christine (Nora Gregor), the wife of the marquis (Marcel Dalio). She might or might not be in love with a pilot (Roland Toutain) who’s just broken some transatlantic flying record. The marquis, meanwhile, might or might not be tiring of his affair with Geneviève (Mila Parély). While out on the estate, poacher Marceau (Julien Carette, along with Dalio the best thing in it) is locked with the gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) in the eternal fight of the authentic proletarian versus the lickspittle class traitor. And wheeling among all these people and the marquis’s other guests is Octave (played by Renoir himself), a catalytic go-between and shit-stirrer supreme.
The French critic André Bazin described La Règle du Jeu as “the culmination of Renoir’s quest for la drame gai”, where gai means frothy or superficial. There isn’t a second of this film that isn’t bubbling with activity, and if people aren’t moving about in front of the camera then Renoir’s camera moves about in front of the people, or finds something else to fix on. At one point, outdoors, in the dark, when it looks like everything has finally come to rest, Renoir swings the camera downwards, to the ground, where toads are bobbing about in the mud, as if to say – see, still it goes on!
Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is the nearest modern equivalent. “I learned the rules of the game from The Rules of the Game,” Altman once said. In films like Mash or McCabe and Mrs Miller, Short Cuts or The Player the debt to Renoir is clear – the overlapping conversations and the tracking of inconsequential movement, but most obviously the way both Altman and Renoir just drop us into the action and let us work everything out for ourselves.
And because Altman is such an influence on Paul Thomas Anderson, in some sense Renoir (who died in 1979 but made his last film in 1970) lives on.
Anderson has never made a film which suffered the fate of La Règle du Jeu, which got mixed reviews when it debuted but so polarised audiences that cinemas showing it were threatened with arson. Renoir responded by trimming the runtime to 85 minutes, but that didn’t help. In the end, the government banned it, for reasons of national morale during wartime, and it wasn’t until 1956 that the film was restored to its former glory.
It was the most expensive film ever made in France at the time and its failure bankrupted Renoir. But he was vindicated in the end. The Sight and Sound decennial list of Greatest Films had it in the top ten every decade from 1952 (when you couldn’t even see the original version) to 2012. The most recent, 2022, list puts it at number 13.
These “greatest” movies can be formidable and sometimes a bit of a chore, especially when they’re important largely because of stylistic breakthroughs which have since become part of everyday movie language. That’s not the case with La Règle du Jeu, which is “important” in the sense of its brilliant freewheeling style and its “message” about the effete ruling class, but great fun too. What a film.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023