After the 1942 bombing of a film lab where the original negative of The Rules of the Game, then considered a minor film by Jean Renoir, was stored, it disappeared. Rediscovered in a box in 1946, a new print was made from the negative and it was screened at film festivals and clubs. Its reputation grew, but when the film opened in New York City in 1950 it was as if nothing had happened since the first premiere in 1939. Critics didn’t like it. What was wrong then and why did the movie’s standing change so much over the years?
Daring aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) lands just outside of Paris after one of his major feats and is greeted by enthusiastic reporters and his friend Octave (Renoir) – but not Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Gregor), the woman he loves and who promised him that she would be there. She hears him talk on the radio about how heartbroken he is, but ignores it. She’s married to Robert (Marcel Dalio), who also has a mistress, Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parèly), and knows about his wife and the aviator.
The de la Chesnayes, members of the French aristocracy, are planning a weekend retreat to their country estate, La Colinière, and both André and Geneviève are invited; wouldn’t it be a relief for the hosts if their lovers were to hit it off…?
Senseless and cruel killing
After making the masterpiece Grand Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir was a respected filmmaker, but the premiere of The Rules of the Game became a disappointment. Neither audiences nor critics approved of the 85 minute cut, apparently considering the characters off-putting and the story confusing. Renoir’s intention was to make his characters likable while also satirizing the upper class at the same time; audiences were supposed to sympathize with their human traits, but also disapprove of the cultural habits of the bourgeoisie. This becomes especially obvious in a lengthy scene where the guests at La Colinière go rabbit-hunting; the killing looks senseless and cruel.
Premiering at a time when the world was preparing to go to war, the impact of the film was understandably greater years later when it had been rediscovered and restored to its current 106 minute cut. Put in its proper context, The Rules of the Game depicts a ruling class that has no knowledge of the world outside its confines, even as it’s collapsing. Instead, they’re preoccupied by their silly games, hunting, drinking and fornicating. Renoir could have made a very bitter movie about it, but has a sense of humor and paints his upper-class and working-class characters at La Colinière as real human beings with complicated emotions. At times, he’s close to turning the story into a complete farce, especially as he has the gamekeeper (Gaston Modot) increasingly agitated over his wife’s loyalties, but it doesn’t go quite that far.
It has inspired many filmmakers, including Ingmar Bergman (I assume) for Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). Technically, the film used deep-focus cinematography in a way that was unusual for 1939. As the camera pans over rooms inside the country estate, it’s trying to capture all the drama as it grows more intense; dialogue and sounds are overlapping and things happen close to the camera as well as in the background.
The cast is fine and it’s an entertaining, morally ambiguous film. Maybe the answer to my initial questions is that it needs a second viewing to be fully appreciated. It’s really not a complex story, and perhaps people needed some distance from the war and its build-up to relax and enjoy a satire of the bourgeoisie properly.
The Rules of the Game 1939-France. 106 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Jean Renoir. Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Carl Koch. Cinematography: Jean Bachelet. Cast: Marcel Dalio (Robert de la Chesnaye), Nora Gregor (Christine de la Chesnaye), Mila Parély (Geneviève de Marras), Jean Renoir, Gaston Modot, Roland Toutain.
Trivia: Original title: La règle du jeu.
Last word: “I thought about [the approaching war], but I thought about it only indirectly. I didn’t say to myself, “This film must express this or that, because we are going to have a war.” And yet, even so, knowing that we were going to have a war, being absolutely convinced of it, my work was permeated with it. But I didn’t establish a relationship between the impending state of war and my characters’ dialogues or words.” (Renoir, “Jean Renoir: Interviews”)