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.

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