A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)

The first time I saw The Rules of the Game, many years ago, I didn't get it. I knew it was often spoken of as one of the great films, but I couldn't see why. I had been raised on Hollywood movies, which fell neatly into their assigned slots: love story, adventure, screwball comedy, satire, social commentary, and so on. Jean Renoir's film seemed to be all of those things, and none of them satisfactorily. I had to be weaned from narrative formulas to realize why this sometimes madcap, sometimes brutal tragicomedy is regarded so highly. And I had to learn why the period it depicts, the brink of World War II, isn't just a point in the rapidly receding past, but the emblematic representation of a precipice that the human world always seems poised upon, whether the chief threat to civilization is Nazism or global climate change. The Rules of the Game is about us, dancing merrily on the brink, trying to ignore our mutual cruelty and to deny our blindness. Renoir's characters are blinded by lust and privilege, and they amuse us until they do horrible things like wantonly slaughter small animals or play foolish games whose rules they take too lightly. I'm afraid that makes one of the most entertaining (if disturbing) films ever made seem like no fun at all, but it should really be taken as a warning never to ignore the subtext of any work of art. Much of the film was improvised from a story Renoir provided, to the glory of such performers as Marcel Dalio as the marquis, Nora Gregor as his wife, Paulette Dubost as Lisette, Roland Toutain as André, Gaston Modot as Schumacher, Julien Carette as Marceau, and especially Renoir himself as Octave. Renoir's camera prowls relentlessly, restlessly through the giddy action and the sumptuousness of the sets by Max Douy and Eugène Lourié. It's not surprising that one of Renoir's assistants was the legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. And, given my own initial reaction to the film, it's also not surprising that The Rules of the Game was a critical and commercial flop, trimmed to a nubbin of its original length, banned by the Vichy government, and after its negative was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1942, potentially lost forever. Fortunately, prints survived, and by 1959 Renoir's admirers had reassembled it for a more appreciative posterity.