The Rules of the Game (1939) – A Theatre of Nightmares

One of the best known rants in the history of film criticism is the one in which Andre Bazin rounds on the French film industry and lambasts it for its failure to be properly cinematic. Instead of producing properly cinematic works of art, Bazin argues, most French film directors were happy to simply film a theatrical performance. Rather than making the most of a new medium, French film was reducing the camera to the role of dumb spectator.

Jean Renoir’s La Regle Du Jeu was first released in 1939. Banned by the Vichy government for being ‘demoralising’, the film’s original negative was later destroyed in an Allied bombing raid forcing post-War cinephiles to assemble their own version of the film with advice from Renoir. This reconstructed version of the film is the one that we know today and it is dedicated to Andre Bazin.

It is tempting to link these two statements together: Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu may well be one of the great masterpieces of 1930s French cinema, but it is also an intensely theatrical film. Not only does the film contain an infamous ‘play-within-a-play’ but many of Renoir’s mis-en-scenes are explicitly and quite intentionally theatrical in both composition and reference. Reading between the lines, one can divine a response to Bazin’s famous rant.  La Regle du Jeu is full of slamming doors and romantic misunderstandings but the film’s theatrical nature is far from unthinking. In fact, in packs a powerful political punch. La Regle du Jeu uses its theatricality to present the pre-War French bourgeoisie as a frothy and insubstantial band of corrupt and self-indulgent buffoons. Wielders of a social morality so completely disconnected from the demands of the real world that they no longer seem to believe in it themselves, Renoir’s upper-classes are incapable of defending France against the rising tide of Fascism. Where were the ruling class when Vichy was on the rise? They were dressing up as bears and having delightful weekends in the country. Showing an almost post-modern awareness of media and irony, La Regle du Jeu remains one of the most powerful indictments imaginable of a society that has become lost in the maze of its own self-indulgence.

La Regle du Jeu opens on a darkened field. A woman steps out into the night, pulling behind her the cable of her microphone. Announcing herself as an envoy from Radio City, the woman explains that an assembled crowd is waiting expectantly for the arrival of the French airman Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain). Full of tension and anticipation, this scene not only provides us with some back-story, it also sets the political context of the film: it is a cold night but the temperature has not prevented crowds from gathering in order to acclaim a national hero. France, it seems, wants to believe in heroes. The French people look to the wealthy and the successful to provide them with leadership and inspiration. When Jurieux lands, the radio presenter forces her way to the front of the crowd and asks the airman to say a few words but instead of providing the people with leadership or inspiration, Jurieux moans about the fact that a particular woman did not turn up to congratulate him. This is the film’s central message: In 1939, the eyes of the French people were on the Bourgeoisie but all the Bourgeoisie cared about was there own personal problems.

The woman that Jurieux had hoped to see was Christine (Nora Gregor), an Austrian woman married to the immeasurably wealthy Marquis de la Chesnaye (Dalio). The choice of Christine’s nationality is hardly accidental in its allusion to Marie Antoinette and the pampered escapism of Louis XVI’s pre-Revolutionary Court. In one poignant scene, Octave (the striving and sympathetic musician played by Renoir himself) attempts to explain to Christine that she is no longer a child and that by innocently throwing herself into the arms of men without thinking of the consequences she is only storing up problems for both herself and her husband. Again, Renoir is laying his cards on the table: Ever the voice of reason, Octave is attempting to explain to Christine that there are rules regarding how you conduct yourself in polite society, rules that allow people to conduct affairs whilst maintaining an outward façade of marital propriety. Unfortunately, while Christine seems oblivious to these rules, the same can be said of al the other characters too. Indeed, Jurieux is in love with a married woman and proclaims this fact on the radio while Christine is unhappily married to a man who is himself conducting a long-term affair with another woman. In principle the ‘rules of the game’ should allow these characters to live the lives they want to live but because they are either ignorant of these rules or simply unwilling to follow them, all three characters are heading for disaster.

Hoping to resolve the problem of Jurieux’s inconvenient love and la Chesnaye’s inconvenient affair, Octave convinces the la Chesnayes to invite both of their lovers to spend the autumn with them in their country abode. Realising that Octave has their best interests at heart, la Chesnaye agrees to the ploy even though his lack of faith in social mores is evident in his sigh that fixing Jurieux up with his mistress would be ‘too convenient’ to be true.

La Regle du Jeu is an intensely dynamic film that is forever shifting between different cinematic registers. The film begins by aping the style of a news report and from there we move to a traditional drama as Octave stalks from room to room brokering an agreement between Jurieux, Christine and La Chesnaye. From there, the camera moves into the French countryside for an almost documentary snapshot of life on a French estate. However, while Renoir shifts his films between different forms, his control over both camera and composition remain absolute.  No news broadcast ever featured a plane that appeared out of the darkness like a symbol of hope. No drama pitched the camera in such a way that a man seemed forever an interloper into the private affairs of his wife and her childhood friend. No documentarian’s camera ever panned upwards in moments of social elevation and downwards when characters spoke of their relationship with the land. In La Regle du Jeu, Renoir shows an astonishing awareness of how ‘real’ different forms of media can feel but the dynamism of his mis-en-scene and the grace of his composition make it clear that in the 20th Century, cinema is king.

Renoir’s awareness of medium is evident in the way that Christine begins her time in the country with a press conference explaining that she and Jurieux are simply friends. Though ostensibly a spontaneous action, this attempt at shutting down the rumour mill suggests that Christine is already a creature of the media. Like a character in a play or an ambitious junior politician, she has little or no substance outside of her capacity for commanding the public eye.

While La Regle du Jeu takes the form of a country house farce, both its tone and the details of its plot derive from the fact that its characters are more concerned with how they are seen than whether or not they will bed the person they love. Christine’s attempt to ‘set the record straight’ is only the overture in what rapidly becomes a symphony of ever-more public emotional outpourings. Every time the characters seem about to pair off in a satisfactory manner, events conspire to reveal them as hypocrites and liars. This process is particularly evident in the fact that the events in the film’s third act all hinge upon the fact that Christine happens to see her husband embracing his mistress in public. Had la Chesnaye not decided to kiss his mistress goodbye then Christine would not have grabbed the nearest suitor and publicly dragged him into a bedroom.  Had Christine not dragged an idiot into a bedroom then Jurieux and la Chesnaye would never have gotten into a brawl. As Renoir establishes in the early scene featuring Octave and Christine, the problem is not that there are no rules for conducting affairs, the problem is that people no longer trust these rules and so find themselves moving unpredictably between socially acceptable hypocrisy and morally acceptable romantic sincerity. By refusing to commit to either set of rules, the characters of La Regle du Jeu unleash a storm that sweeps up everyone around them.

Like many farces, La Regle du Jeu begins with a love triangle. However, far from contenting himself with this basic dynamic, Renoir allows the relationship to expand and contract so as to suck in other characters.  By the end of the film, the triangle has exploded into an n-dimensional figure as Christine flirts with four separate men while both la Chesnaye and Jurieux flirt with two other women. Not content with this intricate web of inter-relations, Renoir then has various second-tier characters flirt, pair-off and imitate each other as life below stairs starts to take on the emotional complexities of bourgeois life. The corrupting influence of the bourgeoisie is evident in the story of Marceau (Julie Carette), a poacher who, though initially honoured to be elevated to the position of servant, soon finds himself lethally distracted by another servant’s wife. While the working classes may imitate the feckless and incoherent romanticism of their social betters, their lack of money and position means that they are far more at risk from the climate of moral imbecility that surrounds them. For example, when Jurieux and la Chesnaye square off over Christine, only egos are wounded.  When Marceau squares off with the gamekeeper for the affections of the gamekeeper’s wife, he winds up being hunted like an animal.

It is very clear that la Chesnaye, Jurieux and Christine are all protected from the consequences of their actions by their social positions. At its crudest, this permissive attitude towards wealthy indiscretions is evident in the figure of the General (Pierre Magnier) who, like many military men of the ancien regime, can always be trusted to defend the interests of the ruling class. Whenever the tide of public opinion threatens to turn against either la Chesnaye or his wife, the General will inevitably step in and speak of their great class or moral refinement. On a more substantial level, la Chesnaye’s position in society does not merely protect him from the consequences of his actions, it also trivialises the context in which these consequences play themselves out. Indeed, as far as la Chesnaye is concerned, life is literally a stage and it is with this idea that La Regle du Jeu acquires its true political muscle.

Throughout La Regle du Jeu, various characters attempt to become either the centre of attention or the fulcrum of the film’s plot.  When Christine gives her ‘press conference’, la Chesnaye is standing right behind her.  Later, when the group stage their performance, only la Chesnaye takes the stage as himself and addresses the audience.  Looking up at him as though in the stalls, the camera accepts la Chesnaye’s rightful place on the stage of human events.  However, given his moment to speak, all la Chesnaye wants to do is drawn our attention to a mechanical organ, the pinnacle of his so-called “career” as a collector.

The fact that la Chesnaye can take to the stage and draw our attention to something as pointless and hideous as a mechanical organ stands in poignant contrast to the far quieter scene in which Octave talks about Christine’s father the orchestral conductor.  With emotion evident in his voice, Octave expresses his desire to take to the stage and command the attention of a crowd.  As though in a daze, he walks out onto the terrace and takes a bow… but there is nobody there to acclaim him or thank him. Throughout the film, Octave speaks with warmth and intelligence about the world around him, he not only believes in a personal code of ethics, he also tries to guide others in the direction of their heart’s desire. However, because he is not rich and because he is not of noble blood, the film resists his attempts to conduct the plot and impose order upon the chaotic upper-class revelries.

Renoir draws on all of these elements to present French society as a timeworn farce. A show which once commanded large crowds and rave reviews, it now plays solely for the people that appear in it. Its jokes no longer funny, its romantic leads no longer in love and its sweetness long since turned bitter, French society is withering under the control of an utterly self-involved and morally imbecilic ruling class who no longer understand themselves let alone the world that surrounds them. All of French society expects these elites to put on a show and to lead them forward into the future but, left to their own devices, the rich and powerful would rather play about with fantastical toys while the people around them lose both their lives and their livelihoods.

Had this film been made during the 1960s when filmmakers such as Marcel Ophuls and Alain Resnais were challenging the myth of French Citoyen-Resistant then La Regle du Jeu would have been a powerful indictment of War-time French morality. However, because it was made during the run up to the Second World War, the film’s power is even greater as it lacks the privilege of hindsight. Decades ahead of its time on a political as well as a stylistic level, La Regle du Jeu is easily one of the greatest films ever made. It is a flawless gem whose timeless beauty becomes ever more apparent each time we return to it.