La Règle du Jeu (1939) Director: Jean Renoir
“The Rules of the Game” is sometimes considered Jean Renoir’s greatest film. He was at the height of his career, coming off the commercial success of La Bête humaine in 1938. “The Rules of the Game” was approved for one of the biggest budgets for a French film at the time, and it eventually became the most expensive French film to date. In 1938, Renoir founded Nouvelle Édition Française (NEF) with his brother Claude Renoir, together with André Zwobada, Oliver Billiou and Camille Francois. They each invested 10,000 francs each in the company which they modeled on United Artists in America, however “The Rules of the Game” became the only film produced by the company. Renoir spent a great deal of time rallying friends in the film industry for his new film, and raised money from the likes of René Clair, Julien Duvivier, Jean Gabin and Simone Simon.
The film tells a sort of chaotic story of aristocrats as they attend a party at a rural country estate, while each of them has romantic attachments toward others, but publicly keep up a fanciful charade. It is filled with challenging cinematic angles and techniques, as the frame is often busy with multiple stories happening at once. It is beautifully photographed. It is a comedy, or a dark satire, of French elite life. Renoir wrote a script for the film, but much of the film is spontaneously improvised, though it is certainly complexly staged and organized. The Danse Macabre scene is particularly memorable, along with a disturbing scene of rabbit hunting (which Renoir, himself, refused to film). The weekend of the group ends in tragedy, with a death. Renoir acts in the film as a mediating character. It is about bourgeois values and obligations, and the failure of nearly every character to meet them. It has no heroes, and no meaningful plot, but is rather about a “world” as Renoir once claimed.
The film was highly anticipated upon its release, but it was an extraordinary box-office failure. In fact, there were even violent riots that broke out upon its release. It was severely cut down to about 85 minutes and was criticized almost universally. It was banned by the French government. Renoir would later laugh at how the film was called a travesty ‘thirty years ago’ but now is called one of the greatest ever made. Many of the actors and staff remember the film as a happy time just before the horror of WWII broke out. The film was restored years later after the careful work of several film historians, even adding new sections previously unknown.
“The Rules of the Game” is a fascinating and undeniable film, though it seems much mainstream fascination with it stems from stories about the film, rather than the film itself. It is not my favorite Jean Renoir film (heresy!) but still is filled with compelling scenes and would, no doubt, be worth exploring its themes further. Renoir once likened the film to “dancing on a volcano” as it exposed certain “rules” of high society -who follows them and who disobeys.