La Regle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) has featured in the top ten of every Sight and Sound poll and has been in the top three for the last 40 years. Putting aside the question whether ‘the greatest film ever made’ is a valid question it does suggest that Renoir’s movie (is the American term appropriate?) has succeeded in ‘speaking’ to successive generations.
In 1939 Renoir’s stock in the film business was at its height, his previous film La bete humaine (1938 ) had played ‘to full houses for months at the Madeleine [in Paris]’ (Sesonske, 1980, p. 379 ), and his critical reputation was irreproachable.
Regle was filmed between Chamberlain’s grasp of a piece of paper at Munich and the start of the war. Renoir was consciously attempting to capture that historical moment: not the joy of many who believed war had been averted but their delusion in doing so:
it seemed to me that a way of interpreting this state of mind… was not to talk of that situation but tell a frivolous story. I looked inspiration to Beaumarchais, to Marivaux, to the classical authors of comedy. (Renoir quoted in Sesonke, op. cit., p. 378 )
Compared to the optimism of Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) and La Marseillaise (1938), Regle – despite the fact it is a comedy – is strikingly pessimistic. He used to 18th century classics, which satirised the divisions of social class, to comment upon the contemporary bourgeoisie. Like his predecessors, the satire did not go unnoticed on its premiere in July 1939:
[it was] preceded by an interminable documentary consecrated to the glories of the French Empire… The audience cheered. But as La Regle du jeu unrolled, the applause turned to expressions of fury. (Sesonske, op. cit., p. 384)
Attempts were made to burn down the cinema and Renoir left shocked by the reaction. Later he realised that although he had taken care to present the bourgeoisie as sympathetic characters, driven by their weaknesses rather than malice, he had held up a mirror to their inability to deal with the impending war: ‘People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses.’ (ibid.)
Renoir had dealt the theme in La Grande Illusion (1937) where the officer class of World War I stuck to a code of honour that had no relevance to the realities of war. Despite his sympathetic portrayal of the officers (played by Erich von Stroheim and Pierre Fresnay) Renoir’s sympathies lay with the Left (though he never joined the Communist Party, the only political group to vote against the Munich pact).
It is interesting to compare Regle with Gosford Park (2001) a film that also satirises the bourgeoisie of between the wars and explicitly references the earlier film in the hunt. Whilst Altman’s view is retrospective (and, for me, offers an incisive critique until the arrival of Stephen Fry as the Inspector), Renoir’s view was contemporary even though his characters seem – at the mansion – to be as locked in the past. However, the anachronistic existence of the Regle’s characters is counter pointed by the character of Andre Jurieux whose arrival emphasises the modern technology of the aeroplane and radio.
Renoir’s technique in Regle is ‘realist’ in its use of relatively long takes and deep focus. Characters move into, and through, the scene as if we are observing them without having to have the camera (through editing) pick out significant points. However, each scene is carefully choreographed and the spatial relationship of the characters to one another (and the camera) is crucial to the film’s meaning.
1. Does the farce-like contrivances of the narrative work against the ‘realist’ way in which the film is shot?
2. With whom are our sympathies meant to lie?
3. Is the film obviously about 1939 or is it necessary to know that Renoir was making a comment about a society on the brink of war?
Alexander Sesonske (1980) Jean Renoir – the French Films 1924-1939 (Harvard Film Studies: Cambridge, Massachusetts & London)