Renoir's look at bourgeois life in France at the onset of World War II. An assorted cast of characters - the rich and their poor servants - meet up at a French chateau.
Jean Renoir (scenario & dialogue), Carl Koch (writer)
Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Mila Parély, Odette Talazac, Claire Gérard, Anne Mayen, Marcel Dalio, Julien Carette, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir, Gaston Modot, Tony Corteggiani, Pierre Magnier, Eddy Debray, Pierre Nay
In February, 1939, when Renoir started work on La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), tensions in Europe were at breaking point. General Franco had taken Barcelona, putting an end to the Spanish Republic. Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March; again the Western democracies stood by. Renoir wanted to make a film looking beyond these realities.
The film seems a wry comedy in the French theatrical tradition, but it acquires grim overtones: the roots of the canker destroying Europe. Renoir portrays a class shrinking its responsibilities, a society drawn to pointless pastimes, a blinkered ruling class paving the way for Fascism. The film bears faithful witness to the tragedy about to engulf the world. The massacre in the hunting sequence is a warning echo. Renoir has said:
"I wanted to depict a society dancing on a volcano."
At the end of the film, all is well again. The death of Jurieu, shot like a rabbit, scandalizes no one. It is covered up, as in a conjuring trick. The lies serve to restore good manners. The comedy has lasted long enough.
"He was bowled over like an animal"The violence in this society has been demonstrated. Death is an accepted necessity rather than a hazard, so that the rules can work.
Gentry stand shoulder to shoulder, but years of keeping up appearances has leached away all life, leaving them heading for a downfall.
Renoir suggests this by having only shadows return to the chateau. The film ends at night with a fade to black.
The rules allowed intruders to be removed - trouble makers go as they come. Jurieu the pilot, a modern hero is welcomed with lies and disappears with hypocrisy.
Octave, the faithful friends and sponger, takes a back seat like a servant.
Marceau the poacher, dismissed as casually as he was hired.
These three characters bring and take away life itself: desire, love and fiction. But in this world they must be marginalized; there is no room for them.
The Marquis is the master of the stage on which they briefly appear.
For film-makers, it is also a story of the games of love and desire. The women imagine themselves to be at the heart of the action as though they were responsible for the movements of the men around them.
Taken individually, his characters are both charming and whimsical. But seen in perspective they are obnoxious. Here, spoiled and blase brats take their cruel, pointless pleasure. As a group they are killers, caught up in the rules of the game, they act like robots, without passion.
Intimacy | Renoir creates a movement, showing each character close to and at a distance. First in intimacy, then in the reality of their social roles. He achieves this through depth of field, using very fast lenses enabling backgrounds to be in sharp focus. Life is depicted in all its complexity. La Règle du Jeu is a masterpiece, a lesson in film-making.
Names | The names are not chosen at random. Marceau was a great Republican general during the French Revolution. In fact, Renoir made a film about him: La Marseillaise. A La Chesnaye ancestor was also featured. In La Marseillaise he was the ultra-Royalist supporter of Marie Antoinette, the Austrian, just like the Marquise.
The comedy follows the traditions of French boulevard theatre: the classic love triangle complete with husband, wife, lover, evolves under the complicitous eyes of the husband: the Marquis, master of the entire social structure. The film unfolds in camera: the Parisian town house, the hunting grounds as Sologne, and the chateau, are but one space, the property of the Marquis.
The film starts out as a comedy and ends as a tragedy. In a subtly unbalanced progression, Renoir moves from one to the other. Through this the film, rigorous in structure, draws its dynamic.
In the first reel, Renoir deals his cards. The suitor, the wife, the husband, the mistress. They take their places for the eternal game of love.
In the second reel, Octave offers himself as a go-between. Each reel is a stage in the plot; between each reel there is a fade out. The third reel begins in Paris, moves to Chateau La Coliniere, and another intruder. The forth reel is devoted to the arrival of the guests. In the fifth, things work themselves out. The hunt occupies the whole of the sixth reel. The seventh reel heralds rupture in both couples.
In the eighth reel, the film's structure changes completely. It's the second part of the story, running over the next four reels. The action takes place in real time, no fade-outs, jump cuts or dissolves. The style of filming changes: the game starts to fall apart. We follow the evening's mad antics in real theatrical time. The theatrical finale is heralded by a reference to the Marriage of Figaro.
"You true and tender souls,
Who blame the fancy free,
Cease your bitter plaints,
In dalliance there is no iniquity,
For if love has wings,
It is to soar in liberty"
As in the theatre, the earlier action unfolds in continuity. But Renoir leavens it with fade-outs and three dissolves. These eclipses echo the rise and fall of a stage curtain. As in the theatre, unity of place is paramount.
There is more analysis below on LIGHTING, DIRECTION, FRAMING RELATIONSHIPS, SOUND, PERSPECTIVE & HISTORICAL CONTEXT. See more...
As in the theatre, the leading players have their understudies: their comic servants who find themselves in the same situation as their masters. However, their reactions are more natural and more violent. They reveal their master's true nature by acting in his place.
The references to theatrical conventions may seem obvious but Renoir is not filming a play. As though a documentary, he takes pains to evoke the manner of reportage. The film opens with a live radio broadcast - then a new technique to introduce his theme concisely and efficiently. The classic introductory voice-over is provided here by the broadcaster. The artifice is made to seem less apparent.
The broadcast pulls the thread of the narrative, switching between characters, one set to the next, quickly and efficiently. The characters motivations and intentions are set out - not least those of Renoir, the director. This reconstituted reportage lends credibility to his story - a facet of modern life which suggests the principles underlying the film.
The reported event takes place, then the reporters and cameras vanish. The aeroplane appears, all speed and power. Life enters the frame, sowing total confusion in its wake. The burst of enthusiasm brings chaos to the reportage.
From then on the camera stands back, establishing itself as another, independent viewpoint. The film's dynamic alternates these two viewpoints: a close shot of the subject, then a backward movement to put it in context. The movement between general and particular is characteristic. It shows the characters in a sympathetic light, revealing their lies as they think they're being sincere.
Renoir's technique has a specific purpose: to portray the mendacity of a society that no longer believes in its values. So powerful is this class that it can make nature lie. Even the beaters' drive is organized solely for social purposes. A documentary-like sequence details the ritual of an upper-class hunt - the palpitating life, the sudden death-throes contrast with the coldly mechanical conduct of the guns. The rhythm of the montage, the inventive framing and the careful attention to sound are integral to Renoir's direction.
In filming the life and death of an animal, the action had to be captured as if in a newsreel. But the hunters are viewed within the imaginatively designed frames but disappear when the guns have their backs to us. Trees and hides steer us towards the game as the guns open up on us. He thereby stakes out distances - we too are excluded from this world.
By insisting on the expanses of sky, Renoir suggests the power of his class. Meanwhile their servants are completely at ease in collecting the booty. The Marquis occupies his spaces as though master of it all, including the natural world.
Renoir conducts the sequence around his usual interplay between divergent elements. The result is neither filmed theatre nor actually reportage. The styles combine to create a dynamic that is vibrantly alive. The stylistic freedom leaves one with a sense of burgeoning growth, an energy that makes the action seem to be happening even as we watch. Francois Truffaut wrote:
"Each spectator feels he is taking part in the filming, and sees Renoir being in charge of everything, including the screening. You feel like coming back tomorrow to see if things go differently."And playing the character Octave, Renoir seems to be directing while in character, and even on screen. He congratulates Christine on her scene, he supervises her focusing, or again he suggests a change in the script. Throughout he speaks for life and liberty, until the moment when Renoir the actor, overwhelmed by the forces he has activated is thrown out of the film by Renoir the filmmaker.
At this point the action teeters, with freedom and the vitality of the game at their most evident. The character of Octave lacks the moral weight to impose his dreams. Society itself, a phantom society, is carried along by its death wish.
Renoir once again combines a mixture of styles amid the theatricals of the cabaret sketch. Death dances as in a medieval mystery play, couples change partners, doors slam with comedy becoming farce, a Chaplinesque burlesque.
It can be seen as a light comedy, a social satire, or a moralistic comedy. The various styles combine without threatening the film's unity. Renoir is here like a painter, juxtaposing complementary colors, each leaving the other with greater lustre.
Everyone contributes to this. Each character plays his role his own way, each acting freely in keeping with his own personality, and no one is shocked by a rural poacher with a Parisian accent. Renoir lets Dalio use too much make-up when he has to reveal the Marquis' vanity.
In close-ups, the women are lit just as fashionable photographers did then. Renoir adapts the style of lighting demanded by the situation, depending on the action, the scene and the position of the shot.
Renoir uses every technique at his disposal to get at the truth. His camera opens doors onto a world of strict rules but his direction leaves the actors totally free. They remain vibrant , direct, at ease, not curbed by technique. However, this semblance of freedom masks the truth. They are out only on probabtion. The frame is ever present, punctilous and purposeful. Whetever they think or do they cannot escape it. We enter this world through French windows, a world within a world.
Renoir uses a long sequence filmed in continuity, a sequence-shot with sufficient depth of focus to let one follow the action both close to and far from the camera. REmorselessly, the camera follows the characters attentively.
An example is during the bedroom scene. It drops Robert out of the frame as Christine calls. The Marquis must ask to be allowed to reenter the frame. As a sudden noise, the camera turns to discover Lisette.
The shifting frame indicates the true relationships between the characters. The Marquis continues on his own way, while Christine indicates he preferences by her friendly embrace for Octave. Robert kisses his wife's hand, stressing the formality of a relationship that echoes the distance between Lisette and her husband. The track-in with pan left indicates both Octave's vitality, and the chilly relationship between the Marquis and his wife. Combined, the pan and lateral track reveal the truth. Relations between the Marquis and Christine have long been purely social.
The pan is a dominant camera movement in La Règle du Jeu. It brings bredth of field into play as opposed to depth which emphasises actions both near and far away. THe pan, therefore, allied to depth of field lets Renoir's mise-en-scene attain maximum speed, vitality and freedom in dealing with matters of maximum complexity.
The rhythm is set by the agitated movements of the actors with the bustling and bursts of sound. The camera remains still at the heart of an important scene. The sound ambience is as crucial as the clarity of the images. A rapid pan catches up mid-chase. On its axis, the camera scans areas that characters move to, like a police camera on traffic watch, or a security camera on the lookout for burglars.
Coordination in the rapid movements of cast and camera creates a sense of complexity in what is essentially a simple scene. It clearly shows Jurieu and Robert carrying Genevieve, but they are unnoticed in the rapid pan that catches the chase.
The narrative pace derives from perfect synchrony in acting and technique. In this sort of society, people don't look at each other. They communicate through props: a gramaphone, a mechanical doll, a mirror, or a bow-tie.
Intamacy is only possible where the rules are forgotte in private. Or, when the rules are flouted through tension and rare reverse-angle close-ups stress the conflict.
Here, the wide angle notes the difference in class between the Marquis and Octave.
Low angles highlight idealism, the presence of sky, faith in elitist order.
High angle shots express the relationship with the land, and the true intention of ownership being domination.
In each scene the action is framed to indicate who is in the game, and who at present is not. Entering or leaving the frame has its meaning. A few scenes starting with an empty frame reveal people loosing their grip on reality, or stalked by the death they organized, or driven mad by uncontrollable feelings.
Renoir is as sentive as any orrchestra conductor to sound in dynamic relation to his images.
Sound governs the actorsm the music box inspiring the erotic gamble.
Renoir plays particularly close attention to sound and images. He lets the sounds loom up and fade, lending the soundtrack an almost stereophonic effect.
Baroque music is used only at the very beginning and end of the film. Otherwise, the music we hear has a source in the frame: a radio, a gramophone, an automaton, a mechanical doll, or a handful of instruments including a mechanical piano, a trumpet and a hunting horn. Usually the music is from a machine and it always accompanies amorous action or feelings. It underlines the artifice in these passions. Only the marginal, Marceau and Octave, escape the mechanism of emotions.
Here, the gramophone unleashes Dionysiac desires: the faun pursues the nymph. This scene heralds upheaval at La Coliniere.
The camera tilts from the sheet music to the pianists hand, then moves back. As at the beginning, Renoir moves from deatil to broader view. This scene heralds a sequence in which the film teeters on the edge, with extreme precipitation affecting everything.
The editing also disconcerts the spectator. The pianist's look conjures the theatre. To capture her point of view it would require a camera stage left, near the piano. However, Renoir's camera is far to stage right. Here, it is independant of the action.
A travelling pan covers the entire space; first the theatre, the guests, the servants in the hallway, and the senior domestic staff.
The stage looks at the audience. The audience looks at the stage. A pure play of mirrors.
In the wings, excitement reigns. Genevieve flaunts her affair with the Marquis, Christine flaunts off with Saint-Aubin, Jurieu wants to protest but is restrained. The audience demands that the game go on. New couples line up for the finale. Christine and Saint-Aubin walk by. Jackie assesses her chances of snatching Jurieu. Her glance must be noted to understand the plot; a pace unprecedented in 1939.
For Renoir, the classic trio is too simple. Christine loves, or claims to love, four men: Robert, Saint-Aubin, Octave and Jurieu. Lisette has three lovers: Marceau, Schumacher and Octave. Love's game becomes more complicated.
As always for Renoir, the theatre is a mirror in which the group's dreams and aspirations are reflected. here the camera takes the spectators' place, looking at the stage. Renoir is inviting us to step back, to think further about this society.
The costumes of the stage performance are not random choices. The year is 1939, the actors dressed as Tyroleans and sing an ultra-nationalistic song, a Boulangist hymn to national glory, thereby mocking the ideals of their parents. They are the upper class at their peak at the dawn before the Third Republic.
On the eve of war with Germany, these were coolly inflammatory scenes. La Règle du Jeu shows a prvileged social group mocking the values on which their society is based. In 1939, they are rejecting their nationality, afraid of neith Nazism nor Fascism. On teh contrary, they approve of law and order. What they feared was the Popular Front of 1936. Stability returning, a touch of populism was chic while social reforms lent lower classes the illusion of upward mobility. Their aim became to ape their masters and join the ranks of the privileged.
French society was morally defunct. Renoir's anger explodes in one line: "You tried to better me by making me a servant". Imagine Beaumarchais making Figaro say this on the eve of the French Revolution, as his plays are indicative of the change in social attitudes before, during, and after the French Revolution. Yet the film was inspired by The Marriage of Figaro: Marceau is Figaro.
Renoir upholds the three revolutionary principles. For him there is no freedom without equality, no equality without fraternity. This society of 1939 accepts these principles. It even flaunts them, to better strip them of their meaning. They seem so free, yet they are totally bound by their rules. They pretend to be equal, but only to a point. They lay claim to fraternity that events deny.
Friendship and fellowship are mere illusions. In 1789 property was the prime concern, yet property destroys equality, falsifies fraternity, and in the end perverts freedom.
Immensely rich, the Marquis pretends to be unaffected by property-owning. For Renoir, property is worse than theft, it's the source of the crime. This is the iniquity of property: the smallholder who kills to defend his land.
On stage, their costumes betray them: landowners become phantoms marshalled by death.
Why must Jurieu die? Because he alone puts his life at stake. To win Christine, he risked his life to fly the Atlantic. Her's from another place, another time, some mythical world of chivalry. A romantic hero, like Don Quixote, he pursues a dream of sincerity, an illusion of honesty and loyalty. He lives by anachronistic values in this world of landowners. Jurieu doesn't love Christine the way one loves a woman - he loves the ethereal and romantic ideal of a great lady with a pure heart. His naivery and weakness make him the perfect victim.
The rules require the elimination of the intruder. As is the Theatre, all come to take their bows. This society still shines, but with the light of a dead star. All its basic values are extinct. It tries to acquire a sense of living by orbiting faster only to be faced with its own vacuity. As the shadows the phantoms return to the chateau.