The Rules of the Game • Poetic Realism

Greenscreening Series #12

November 3, 2022

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The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu) (1939), directed by Jean Renoir

*The Rules of the Game*


Considered one of the greatest films ever made, The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu), by Jean Renoir, is a scathing critique of corrupt French society cloaked in a comedy of manners in which a weekend at a marquis’ country château lays bare some ugly truths about a group of haut bourgeois acquaintances. The film has had a tumultuous history: it was subjected to cuts after the violent response of the premiere audience in 1939, and the original negative was destroyed during World War II; it wasn’t reconstructed until 1959. -The Criterion Collection

Find The Rules of the Game via JustWatch

Why The Rules of the Game? (tl;dr)

  • The film is regarded as one of the greats of the canon. It has ranked near the top of every Sight and Sound poll since 1952.

  • The Rules of the Game is an example of poetic realism, a movement in 1930s French cinema that combined stylized studio production with gloomy, pessimistic tales of contemporary society (very French) during the Depression and lead up to WWII.

  • The film is a directorial masterpiece. Renoir used innovative production techniques like deep focus photography and fluid camera movement, two years before Citizen Kane used these same techniques to great effect. Countless filmmakers cite Renoir and The Rules of the Game as an inspiration.

  • “The most complex social criticism ever enacted on the screen.” -Dudley Andrew (Professor of Film Studies at Yale).

  • The hunt, the centerpiece of the film, is one of the great scenes in film history

  • The film had a disastrous premiere and Renoir recut the original in response. During WWII the film was thought to be lost. In the 1950s, two film enthusiasts discovered old negatives, and worked with Renoir to reconstruct his original vision. Thus, this film is the original Director's Cut.

  • “I first saw The Rules of the Game around fifty years ago, and I saw it again quite recently. Apparently I’m the same person I used to be, because I still felt that everything in the world is in that film, and I’m inside of it myself somehow.” -Wallace Shawn (“inconceivable!!”)

*The Rules of the Game*

*The Rules of the Game*

Jean Renoir

Renoir was the son of the impressionist painter, Auguste Renoir. After being wounded in WWI, he became obsessed by movies, mostly those by D.W. Griffith.

He financed his first films by selling some of his father's paintings, and nearly went bankrupt trying to make it as a filmmaker.

He had his earliest success during the transition to sound, while at the same time developing a distinct production style that was quite difficult but effective: only using natural synchronous sound recorded mostly in natural locations. Most filmmakers - especially at the time - recorded on sound stages to compensate for the poor equipment, utilized "foley," where sound effects are added in post-production, and had actors overdub lines in a studio if shooting on location. Renoir's style gave his films a heightened realism.

He found his footing and went on to create some of the most enduring classics of French cinema. Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) satirizes a middle class bookseller who rescues a suicidal tramp and tries to reform him. The Grand Illusion (1937) is one of the first prison escape movies and an antiwar masterpiece, and is also considered one of the gratest films ever made. He followed that up with La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) (1938), a noir adaptation of an Emile Zola novel.

Renoir is one of the best known directors of a loose movement known as Poetic Realism, which emerged in France during the 1930s. Poetic Realism was like a French version of German Expressionism or American Pre-Code Films, the artistic reaction to unjust societal conditions and broken institutions.

France had experienced the greatest loss during WWI, and the economy was slow to recover during the 1920s. It's estimated that France lost the equivalent of one year's income during WWI, along with over 10% of available Frenchmen. After the War, Labor unions grew rapidly, along with increased membership in the Communist Party, which was mirrored by the rise of far-right parties. Neither side was able to keep power, with elections swinging back and forth, stifling any kind of clear policy development, but fueling polarization.

When the Depression hit, France wasn't impacted quite as dramatically as other countries, but only because they hadn't really fully recovered from the War. Conditions were rough, particularly for the working class.

Poetic Realism reflected these conditions. Filmmakers told stories focused on working class characters and conditions with a harsh pessimism (realism), coupled with lyrical, highly stylized productions (poetic). Rather than shooting these stories documentary style, Poetic Realist filmmakers embraced the studio and opted for almost noirish art direction, with chiaroscuro lighting and shadows. Characters were often struggling to get by during the Depression and sometimes resorting to crime, and disillusionment and death were often the end. Many critics and scholars see Poetic Realism as a precursor to film noir and to the French New Wave of the 1960s.

The major artistic forces of poetic realist filmmaking were directors Renoir, Marcel Carné, Julian Duvivier, and Jean Vigo. Besides Renoir's classics, some other notable films of the genre include:

  • L'Atalante (1934), directed by Jean Vigo

  • Pepe le Moko (1937), directed by Julien Duvivier

  • Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) (1946) directed by Marcel Carné

However, it wasn't all doom and gloom, and not a strict artistic movement. Renoir often made comedies and satires during the period. He wasn't bound by genres - he also made a film, Toni (1935) with non-professional actors in a documentary style, which prefigured Italian Neorealism by about a decade. After The Grand Illusion, Renoir was arguably the most popular French director, and his follow-ups were highly anticipated.

*The Rules of the Game*

Creation, Fall, and Restoration of The Rules of the Game

Coming off the massive international success of The Grand Illusion and The Human Beast, Renoir decided to form his own production company, modeled after United Artists, Griffith and Chaplin's star-driven American production company. He co-financed his next film, which ultimately became the most expensive French production at the time.

With the rise of fascism in Europe, Renoir and other French filmmakers were increasingly anxious and pessimistic about society and the inevitability of war. Disgusted by the amount of upper-class sympathy for Nazism, Renoir decided to make a "precise description of the bourgeois of our age." Renoir also later described his aim with the film: "we were dancing on a volcano."

The resulting film, The Rules of the Game, satirizes French society, especially the ruling class. The film follows a group of wealthy friends for a weekend in the country, where they flirt and seduce and betray one another, while their help looks on and enacts their own series of flirtations and infidelities. On one level, the film plays like a comedy of manners (I've heard it described as feeling a bit like a cross between Oscar Wilde and Agatha Christie).

The French have a strange relationship with provocative and satirical films. Maybe you’ve heard about audiences giving films a 5-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, even though half the audience walked out during the screening. Some of that is due to the politics of today’s industry, but there is a historical component as well. French cinema has numerous stories of contentious, protest-heavy premieres, dating back to at least Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s La Age D’or (The Golden Age) (1931), where conservative groups broke into a theater attempting to disrupt the premiere and arrest the filmmakers.

At the premiere of The Rules of the Game, one spectator opened a newspaper and lit it on fire, attempting to stop the film.

But even though it sounds crazy, these kinds of protests are often previews for how the French critics and public will react. Renoir’s film was panned and audiences largely ignored the film.

Renoir was shocked at the reception. He immediately attempted to recut the film, but the cut version fared even worse. This was upsetting to Renoir for multiple reasons, as this was his passion project, and the film was the most expensive ever produced in France. He was genuinely surprised at the reaction and committed to making it work.

Unfortunately, France soon fell to Germany, and was occupied by the Nazis. Needless to say, the Germans didn’t like Renoir’s leftist politics or his films, and The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game were banned by Joseph Goebbels. Many copies of each film were destroyed, along with most of the negatives of The Rules of the Game, which were destroyed in a bombing.

Renoir fled to the US, and worked in Hollywood during the War. During that time, he collaborated with some incredibly interesting people, including then-screenwriter William Faulkner. His Hollywood stint didn't produce anything on the level of his earlier classics. He returned to France after the War and continued working until the late 1950s.

With the rise of film scholarship in the 1950s, Renoir's reputation was restored to its 1930s heights. In particular, Andre Bazín of the French journal Cahiers du Cinema championed Renoir as one of the greatest directors.

In the mid-1950s, two film enthusiasts created a company focused on restoring lost classics. They bought the rights to the film and through researching old records, discovered several hundred boxes of film negatives from The Rules of the Game. Working with Renoir, they restored the film almost entirely to his original cut. They released the restored version in 1959 to universal acclaim.

*The Rules of the Game*

Enjoying The Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, appearing in every Sight and Sound critics poll, even before the film's restoration in 1959. So once again, we face the task of seeing a film whose almost intimidating reputation precedes it.

How do we approach The Rules of the Game, 60+ years on?

During the preparation for the film, I came across a recommendation for three ways to enjoy the film, by late professor Norman Holland.

1) Pay close attention to the use of machines, one of the key visual motifs in the film. What are the machines used for, and what’s going on around them? Try to suss out what Renoir is trying to say through this visual motif.

2) Enjoy and study the performances. Renoir developed the scenario for the film and a script, but gave his actors lots of space to improvise. How do mannerisms of each character, particularly Robert (Marcel Dalio), hint at depths of their character and relationships to others? Much is also made of Renoir’s staging of scenes. Pay attention to how precise the characters’ positions and movements are within the frame.

3) Watch how Renoir uses the camera. He inspired generations with his innovative camera movements, shot compositions, and deep focus photography. It is quite possible that The Rules of the Game directly influenced Orson Welles’ use of the camera in Citizen Kane, for which Welles gets a lot of retrospective credit. Renoir uses deep focus photography with action happening in the foreground and background - consider what effect this has on the story. Additionally, marvel at how fluidly Renoir’s camera moves, many years before the Steadicam was invented. And finally, pay attention to the contrast in pacing between the rest of the film and the hunt - where Renoir accelerates the rate of cutting. What effect does this have?

If you're more interested in critical interpretations of the film, there are many. My research is not comprehensive, but here's some of what I've seen:

  • Machines vs. the organic. The film satirizes the upper class's inability or unwillingness to express true emotions. Repression is the "rule of the game."

  • The contrast between insiders and outsiders; upstairs and downstairs (upper class vs. working class); playing by the rules vs. violating the rules; the struggle of individuality against the pressure to conform.

  • Costumes, masquerade, deception, and betrayal. Nobody really says what they think, or seems to hold any allegiance. In this world, "everyone has their reasons." This is a satire of empty morals, of those who could easily sympathize with Nazis in exchange for protecting their social position.

  • As a modern re-enactment of a Greco-Roman fertility rite, or ritual sacrifice.

In the end, I found this reading by the late Prof. Holland particularly interesting:

You could read this film as bringing outsiders into the castle of the insiders, and then expelling them at the end. Or you could read this film as simply the contrast between the mechanical and the vital or between the mannered insiders and the straightforward outsiders or between the green world and the social world. But it seems to me all three of these readings are too simple (although you should keep them in mind). Renoir is too fine an artist for such simplifications.

Social mechanisms corrupt. Yet we have to have them. I come back to Sartre’s maxim from No Exit: “l’enfer, c’est les autres,” Hell is other people. We humans are social animals (unlike the animals killed singly in the hunt). We, as humans, must live with other people and play by the rules. We cannot get out of the game, yet we cannot win it, either. That is “the rule of the game,” and it does indeed rule our lives in this comic, but tragic way. The Rules of the Game stands as a magnificent tribute to the French sense of irony.

Questions to Consider

  • What do you think Renoir is saying with the film? Where do you see the most evidence of this message within the film?

  • What techniques do you see The Rules of the Game using that we saw in other films in the series? How does Renoir's use of things like camera movement, setting, acting style, etc. differ from the Hollywood directors we've studied in this series (Welles, Ford, Hawks, Chaplin)?

  • Of the possible ways to enjoy the film that Holland offers (use of machines, the acting, and the use of the camera), which of these stood out to you when watching the film? What do you make of Renoir's use of these motifs or techniques?

  • Why do you think The Rules of the Game is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made?

Further Reading / Viewing

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