They Recognized Themselves
“People go to the cinema in the hope of forgetting their everyday problems, and it was precisely their own worries that I plunged them into.” So said Jean Renoir in 1974, thirty-five years after the release of The Rules of The Game, in attempts to justify its degree of abhorrence and hatred by the public. What was once the promising project from a popular, nationally beloved director in the height of his powers, with a production that had star power and commercial appeal (in fact, the most expensive film produced in France that year), became an instant flop, inciting boos, jeers, and a constant cycle of trimming scenes and scheduling new screenings, to little avail. The production company that Renoir began when starting to work on the movie would never make another. The response was easily Renoir’s greatest career failure, and he knew the film’s critique of the haute-societe was its greatest detractor at the time. “The audience recognized this,” Renoir mused, “the truth is that they recognized themselves.”
How The Rules of the Game went from an unsalvageable misfire, to a forgotten, possibly lost afterthought (Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels considered Renoir “cinematic public enemy number one” once the regime marched into France in 1940, and ordered the director’s reels and prints destroyed), to its current prestige is nearly unprecedented. The British Film Institute’s decennial poll last listed it as the fourth-greatest film ever made, and your favorite filmmakers, if not swayed by Citizen Kane, 2001, or Seven Samurai, were likely baptized into film by this pre-war masterwork. Perhaps this initial hatred was a response to the film’s prophecy, a similar one to Renoir’s previous La Grande Illusion: that of the fall of European aristocracy as it was known and revered, and a signaling found so often in classic movies, that of “things to come”. It is, before anything else, a cinematic prediction, a movie that paints an ensemble with such rich detail yet with such intelligence that one understands the climate of the milieu, the context of the order, the rules of the game.
The action takes place in a chateau for much of its runtime; what other structure, physical or otherwise, could best emulate the bourgeoisie that makes up the film’s cast of characters? The plot is kaleidoscopic, but revolves mostly around love triangles, the dynamics between the house’s keepers, servants, and proprietors, and a certain penchant for rabbit hunting. The cast, including Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Mila Parely and the film's director, effortlessly pry and play with the material in an affirming way. It is a pool of characters that, while we laugh at their misgivings and we grapple with their decisions, we nevertheless care for them, a band of misfit protagonists who, in a sprawling dramatic irony, cannot envision their downfall as we can moment-to-moment.
The chateau as a location also serves as a gateway to perhaps Rules’s most famous or imitated aspect: its illustrious, dramatic staging. Early in Renoir’s career, much of his unique visual sensibility was instead credited to his father, noted impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, as inspiration. Certainly in this film, however, and some of his work directly before, the focus started to shift to Jean’s immaculate sense of movement and blocking, a treasured part of his oeuvre so distinctly cinematic. Here in the chateau are characters waltzing into one room, meeting something unexpected, and seamlessly exiting as the film shifts tone between farce and melodrama; characters will appear or disappear in certain moments via exciting, provoking implementation of a roving dolly; and of course, Renoir’s use of deep-focus, popularized later in his career due to its success in later, international films, is in full-effect, providing tension, pathos, arousal.
It is written and discussed that the film was improvised several times throughout its production. This was a hallmark of a director loved for his take on France’s movement of poetic realism on film. Famed critic Andre Bazin wrote that “one of the most paradoxically appealing aspects of Renoir’s work is that everything in it is so casual.” Additionally, Renoir himself would later claim that he had so much to say about the subjects of the upper-middle class that he wrote “only entrances and movements” to each scene, and let the rest ebb and flow through rehearsal and even during takes. Even so, notice what he wrote, premeditated on: movement. The staging of Renoir’s work has a magic element of a near-verite, documentary-esque discovery, as if filming in a reactive sense, though we suspect in every shot, and rightly so, that the tableau and mise-en-scene of the film was likely Renoir’s largest focus, while the endless quips and great lines (“The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”) were left to onset discussion and deliberation.
The film’s ultimate narrative driving force is characters’ love, whether reciprocated or unrequited. The variety of expression of this theme is wholly unique and beautifully human, messy, unresolved. Whether it’s Marceau singing to himself “she loves me, she loves me not” while substituting shined shoes for flowers, or the pilot Andre expressing his plight to the media after an impressive aviation stunt that opens the film. “I’ve never been so disappointed in my life,” he cries, “I made this flight for a woman. She’s not here to welcome me.” The magnitude of heartbreak amplifies throughout the film, leading to its tragic climax, which serves as a thematic exclamation point, but is delivered in a fractured, understated brilliance. Renoir, who shot two endings, opted to use both at the film’s end, a choice that clearly clarifies his means of expression and again shifts tonally in a manner possibly never better conveyed in cinema.
In a medium filled with works lost, unfinished, underseen, and culturally reevaluated, The Rules of The Game is still an anomaly. Its failure, coupled with the fear of Nazi forces occupying France, led Renoir to leave for Hollywood, while his latest film was left to a society that scolded it and a political power that desired to destroy it. By the end of his life, the film’s track towards appreciation and re-discovery had already begun, with publications like Cahiers du Cinema praising the work, theaters organizing retrospectives in which the film played better, loftier. He was able to witness the turnaround, a fact that should be seen as fortunate, as many of his international contemporaries died before their films gained any public momentum. Perhaps the film has aged like fine wine due to the prescience rooted in its craft, or the deft commentary on human relationships that feels timeless, or, likely, both of these factors intertwined. It is no terrible mystery today why the film is named so. What Renoir is begging, imploring the audience to understand, after two hours of joyful, biting, gripping comedy of manners is one final, beautiful irony: that life and love and circumstance will all surprise you, only after you know the rules of the game.
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.