What's the Big Deal?: The Rules of the Game (1939)

Can a movie be obscure and a big deal at the same time? The Rules of the Game (La Regle du jeu) might qualify. Though it regularly appears in a high position on the "greatest movies of all time" lists, it doesn't have nearly as much name recognition as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, 8 1/2, and the other usual suspects. One might get the impression that the only people who have ever seen it are the people who compile lists like that. Why do they love it so much? And why hasn't The Rules of the Game become a cultural touchstone the way most other critically beloved movies have? Well, put on your Gallic hat. We're about to get all French up in here.

The praise: When the British Film Institute surveys the world's top critics every 10 years to gauge the "best films ever made," Citizen Kane is always at the top. But right behind it is The Rules of the Game. Roger Ebert wrote, in 2004, "This magical and elusive work ... is so simple and so labyrinthine, so guileless and so angry, so innocent and so dangerous, that you can't simply watch it, you have to absorb it." Richard Roud, a critic and longtime director of the New York Film Festival, wrote of Rules: "If France were destroyed tomorrow and nothing remained but this film, the whole country and its civilization could be reconstructed from it."

The context: Jean Renoir, writer and director of Rules of the Game, was destined for fame. Born in 1894, he was the son of French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who frequently used young Jean and his siblings as models. (That's li'l Jean in the paintings shown here.) The younger Renoir became interested in filmmaking during World War I, when he got shot in the leg and spent much of his recovery time watching movies. (A lesser man would have resorted to reading books. Not Jean!)

He made a series of short films in the 1920s, most of them unsuccessful -- he had to sell some of Dad's paintings to finance them -- before achieving popularity in the 1930s with his features. Sympathetic to the left-wing political forces then coming to power in France, Renoir scored hits with The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935), Grand Illusion (1937, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar), and The Human Beast (1938), all of them tinged with social statements and considered excellent movies to boot.

Then came The Rules of the Game. Part farce, part tragedy, part scathing satire of the worthless French upper class, it was met with scorn and hostility by Parisian audiences, probably because it hit too close to home. Released in July 1939, when it was fast becoming apparent that Adolf Hitler was going to drag the world into war, the film doesn't just mock the frivolous bourgeoisie -- it blames them. As Alexander Sesonske wrote for Criterion, Renoir wanted to depict a certain part of society, "the upper middle class whose blindness and intransigence had helped create the hopeless situation of Europe in 1939." The film seemed to say: "You know how we're about to go to war? Well, it's because our country is dominated by vapid, indecisive idiots like the ones in this movie."

So, um, yeah, Parisians weren't too happy with it. Everyone enjoys a good laugh, but we usually enjoy it more if it's at someone else's expense, not ours. Renoir, shocked and dismayed at the reaction, re-edited the film, but the new version fared no better. A few months later, Hitler invaded Poland and launched World War II for reals, and the French government banned the film. The Nazis maintained the ban during their occupation of France. Oh, and at some point during the war an Allied air raid destroyed the negative.

All of which helps explain why, for such a great film, it isn't discussed as often as other great films. The people who had seen it in 1939 had mostly negative memories of it, and for many years those were the only opinions on the record. The film had disappeared, so nobody could watch it and reconsider it. The version that was unearthed in 1950 and exhibited theatrically was butchered; the New York Times called it "pointless" and "one for the buzzards."

It wasn't until 1959 that enough footage was found to reassemble the movie the way Renoir originally intended it. This restored version, made under Renoir's direction, hit New York in early 1961, getting a rave review in the Times and elsewhere. From a safe distance, Renoir's eve-of-war satire could be viewed impartially, and it at last started to get the attention it deserved.

There are many characters and love triangles, but the gist is this: Robert de la Chesnaye and his wife, Christine, host a hunting party at their huge country estate. Among the guests are Robert's mistress and a world-famous aviator named Andre, with whom Christine has flirted and who claims to be in love with her. Also on hand is Octave (played by Renoir himself), a large, goofy fellow who's been friends with Christine since childhood and is now chummy with her, her husband, and Andre.

Downstairs, the household staff is a microcosm of the upper crust that's partying upstairs, everyone trying to follow the example set for them by the bourgeois. Christine's maid, Lisette, dabbles in affairs of her own while her husband, Edouard (the gamekeeper at the country estate), tries to maintain order.

Are all these people really being so flagrantly adulterous, hardly even trying to conceal their dalliances? Pretty much. You see, it's OK as long as no one takes anything too seriously. Don't really fall in love with your mistress, don't actually leave your spouse for someone else, and you won't upset the order of things. Those are ... wait for it ... the rules of the game.

What it influenced: Robert Altman once said, "I learned the rules of the game from The Rules of the Game," and its influence -- the many characters, the overlapping dialogue, and so forth -- can be seen in most of his work. Altman especially paid homage in Gosford Park (2001), which mirrors the characters and situations of Rules.

Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor) has written about how this film affected his work, and elsewhere called it his favorite movie of all time. Orson Welles lavished praise on it and borrowed some of its techniques when he made Citizen Kane. (Would Citizen Kane have been as great without Renoir's influence? Probably not.) Welles also wrote a stirring tribute when Renoir died, in 1979.

There are many similarities in theme and content between Rules and Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Both have a central character who hangs out with the rich and famous without actually being one. Both are about a decaying society overwhelmed with frivolity and silliness, with tragic events jolting people (or failing to jolt them) back to reality. Both films also have sequences that foreshadow death.

For what it's worth, the 1989 film Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills was a semi-remake of Rules.

What to look for: Though he's satirizing certain aspects of French society, Renoir maintains an affection for his characters. Someone in the film says, "The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons." No one sets out to be awful. We all have our reasons for doing what we do, including the things we do that hurt other people. Renoir is sympathetic to the foibles of mankind, even as he rips the French upper class a new croissant hole.

In the middle of the film is a famous scene involving a rabbit hunt. Here Renoir changes his tactics. The editing is faster. The images are blunter. (We see some rabbits die.) We know that the characters are at the country estate for a hunting excursion, but the sequence is longer than we'd expect it to be. Why does Renoir dwell on it so much? What are we supposed to get out of it? How does it relate to what we already know about these people, and what we learn about them later? Write an essay addressing these questions, typed, double-spaced, for next class.

What's the big deal: Even if French audiences hadn't been offended by the film, they still might not have thought it was anything special. The film takes on much of its resonance only when you know what happened next: the Nazis, the war, the occupation of France. All the merriment is overshadowed by what's to come. The characters don't know what peril awaits them, and neither did the audience in 1939.

But the film is noteworthy for more than its haunting prescience. The critic James Rocchi wrote, "The Rules of the Game is, like Citizen Kane, one of those films that seems pretty good until you realize that all the things we're taking for granted in this film didn't exist before this film, whether it's the care and craftsmanship of the camerawork or the boldness and bluntness of the subject matter." Not many films manage to be funny, satiric, sympathetic, and sad all at once, and fewer still achieve all that while also demonstrating such a mastery of the technical elements. Like his dad, Renoir was an artist.

Further reading: Most of these articles talk about what happens at the end of the film, so don't read them until you've seen it.

Here's what Orson Welles wrote upon the death of Jean Renoir.

At Senses of Cinema, James Leahy has a thorough analysis of Renoir's work, including The Rules of the Game.

Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay summarizes the film's merits very well, as usual.

Finally, Alexander Sesonske's article at Criterion and James Rocchi's article at the San Francisco Chronicle are nearly perfect. If I could have copied and pasted both of them rather than writing my own, I'd have done it.

Eric D. Snider (website) only knows the rules of the most dangerous game, which is man.

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