La Régle du Jeu (1939)

(a.k.a. The Rules of the Game.)

D: Jean Renoir
S: Nora Gregor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir's follow-up to the enormously successful La Bête Humaine (1938)) was a big-budget (5 million francs) but intensely personal satirical drama concerning the peculiarities of French society and social class. Though it demonstrated the director's characteristic combination of deep humanism, political awareness and his ability to alter mood and tone as suited the moment, and though it was probably his most elegant matching of content to form through subtle use of cinematic mise en scène to date, La Règle du Jeu was roundly booed at its Paris première in July 1939.

Its disastrous performance at home prompted an even less successful 80 minute re-edit which was released internationally. This fared no better, and foreign critics were no less baffled and hostile than their French counterparts. The film disappeared from public view for some years, during which its reputation grew. By the time the restored version was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1959, writers and students of film had begun to realise the breadth of Renoir's vision and the delicacy of his portrait of a society now changed beyond restoration by the war which had followed its original release.

La Règle du Jeu is a unique combination of chaos and deliberation, an evocation of the madness of social convention in 1930s France encapsulated in a story involving the exploits of a group of well-to-do people over an eventful weekend at a country estate owned by Jewish aristocrat Dalio. The story centres on misunderstanding and misperception, and though it superficially resembles the bedroom door-slamming farces which had populated the French stage for many years, it is infinitely more careful in its evocation of character and the interplay of emotions between people who are never all that they seem on the surface, or indeed should be according to society's rules.

The title draws attention to one of the underlying thematic preoccupations of the film, that of game and role-playing in a world ordered by hierarchies, protocols and ideas of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. The irony is that the film amply demonstrates that no one ever obeys the rules, and that as soon as one begins to organise people into social categories or psychological types, they exhibit unforeseen tendencies or act in unexpected ways which redefine our ideas of who they are.

Renoir's concern was, as always, with a world where people could not be thought of in discreet categories, but where all human beings shared emotional and psychological problems which they need to address with the help of others. His vision of the world was not a simplistic one, though it was perhaps idealist; as a place where a refusal to acknowledge our basic commonalities led to inequality, cruelty, and conflict which often destroyed lives, friendships and even nations.

Few of the characters in La Règle du Jeu recognise this, and spend most of their time finding ways to infuriate one another. Romantic and social frustrations abound, some of which eventually boil over into both comic and tragic violence. The central relationship between gung-ho pilot Roland Toutain and emotionally fickle Nora Gregor is merely our introduction to a world in which no one seems to realise that being true to oneself is not as difficult as social mores lead you to believe.

The exception is the character of Octave, played by Renoir himself. Acting as a go-between and all-round organiser throughout the film, he tries to help people to discover who they are, only in time to be faced with his own moral dilemma to which his response is as conflicted as anyone else's.

As director, Renoir allows us to see this world through an admirably restrained camera eye. Using deep focus photography, long takes and brilliant theatrical blocking for camera and character movement, he succeeds in matching his social vision to a transparent but unobtrusive technique which allows us to make our own judgments about what we see.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.