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La Regle du Jeu

by Ian Johnston

Ian Johnston is an expatriate New Zealander who's been living and teaching in Taipei since 1991. He has a M.A. in German Language and Literature from the University of Auckland, N.Z.; and throughout the 1980s he was involved in running the Film Society in Auckland.

There’s no questioning Jean Renoir’s recognised stature today as a great filmmaker, but it does seem surprising that so few English-language books have been published on his work in recent years. Martin O’Shaughnessy’s Jean Renoir (Manchester University Press, 2000) is the most recent critical study, the first to my knowledge since Christopher Faulkner’s The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir (Princeton University Press, 1986). (I’m not counting here the odd biography, nor single-film studies such as Richard Bolton’s very dissatisfying 1994 BFI Film Classic on Boudu Saved From Drowning.)

O’Shaughnessy’s book brings a curious perspective to Renoir’s work. So intent is he on defining Renoir’s importance by his Popular Front films (from Le Crime de Monsieur Lange to La Marseillaise, from 1935 to 1938) and reading an admirable political commitment into those films, that he is led to undervalue the achievements of the astounding masterpiece that La Règle du Jeu (Rules of the Game, 1939) is (now available from Criterion on a superb 2-disc set). Undervalue and misconstrue: O’Shaughnessy’s disappointment that the film offers the lower classes no channel, let alone hope, for political change makes him comment, for example, on the character of Marceau the poacher that: “[He] is only happy to take on the uniform of subservience. When he is dismissed he even thanks the Marquis for having bettered him by making him a servant!” (pp.149-150). This is an absolute misreading of what is happening on the screen: Marceau’s performance here is over-the-top and profoundly self-aware and ironic (a reprise of other such performances we have already seen in the film), and the reaction of the Marquis de la Chesnaye keys us to recognise this. It’s true that any film whose most famous line is “Everyone has their reasons” is not going to offer the kind of sympathy aligned by class lines that O’Shaughnessy seems to want; nonetheless his final comment on the film, that “Christine is so lacking in self-awareness and Lisette so destructively frivolous that it is hard to believe that the film is asking us to sympathise with their state” (p.151) is absolutely wrong. The film is asking us to sympathise with them, as it is with – to a greater or lesser extent – everyone else.

La Règle du Jeu is the peak and summation of all the work Renoir had done in France in the thirties, but it also represents a substantial break with that work and a break, too, with the left-wing, Popular Front principles found in the earlier films. Gone are the class-based concerns for social justice, the favouring of the working class over the upper classes, the portrayal of totally negative exploiters of the working class like Batala (Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, 1935) or Kostilev (Les Bas-Fonds, 1936) who are judged as deserving to die for their economic crimes. Instead, upper and lower classes are viewed as two sides of the same coin, with characters from each class paralleling and reflecting each other, and with all classes conniving at hiding the truth of the tragedy at the film’s dénouement, pasting over the cracks revealed in the surface of French society so that the game can continue: this is the ultimate “rule of the game”.

In contrast to the earlier films also, La Règle du Jeu is a complex, mixed, hybrid work: comedy, tragedy, marital farce, and social comment all coalesce in a style consciously modelled by Renoir on the classical French theater of Beaumarchais and Marivaux from the eighteenth century and Musset from the nineteenth, all overlaid with the spirit of French baroque music. This hybridity is reflected, too, in the way so many of the central characters are in some sense outsiders: principally, of course, the naïve aviator André Jurieux, but also the Marquis Robert de La Chesnaye with his Jewish blood; his Austrian wife Christine; the professional “best friend” (played by Renoir himself); Schumacher, the château gamekeeper from Alsace with his traditionalist and out-of-place morality (protector of both his employer’s property – the estate – and his own property – his wife Lisette); and even the poacher Marceau as he moves into his new position as a servant inside the château.

The film’s initial screenings in Paris in July 1939 are now part of film legend: badly received by both critics and the public, the premiere even saw chairs thrown at the screen and an attempt to set the cinema on fire. Shocked, Renoir cut the film from around 94 to 81 minutes, only to see the film banned by the government censors in October (the ban was rescinded some months later but then reimposed by the Germans during the Occupation). Finally, the negatives were destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942. However in 1958 Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand produced a reconstructed version of 106 minutes based on all the available film materials; this is what Criterion offers, along with an interesting comparison by Christopher Faulkner of the two versions and, related to this aspect, a video essay on the film’s production and restoration and a 1965 French TV interview with Gaborit and Durand.

What then is this film about, that made it so provocative to both audiences and critics of the time? Much has been made of Renoir’s comment of how his film portrays characters “dancing on a volcano”; that it reveals a society plunging in complete insouciance towards the abyss of World War II. Significantly, the film opens in the public arena of Le Bourget Airport where we witness a live radio broadcast in the midst of the large crowd awaiting the arrival of aviator hero André Jurieux. Through the radio we are then linked to the two next scenes, now set amongst the upper class: Christine de la Chesnaye with her maid Lisette, and Christine’s husband Robert with his mistress Geneviève; but the film never returns to this kind of public world again. Indeed, it quickly retreats, for the rest of the story, to the closed world of Robert’s estate at La Colinière.

At La Colinière masters and servants alike join in the rituals of a life divorced from the world outside. (Still, there are intimations of that outside world of society, history and politics – for example, the references to French right-wing anti-republicanism and anti-Semitism in the skits performed during the evening’s entertainment.) Those rituals principally take the form of an often farcical pursuit of love (specifically defined in the film as “merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins”) undertaken by so many of the characters: the petulant André of the initially unaware Christine; Robert, in the way he turns his attentions to Christine, a wife whose value he now realises; Geneviève, in her fight to win Robert back after his declaration to give her up as his mistress; the gamekeeper Schumacher and his attempts to reclaim his wife Lisette from her position inside the château as Christine’s maid; the poacher Marceau’s pursuit of Lisette, quickly reciprocated; Christine and the way, after her discovery of Robert’s unfaithfulness, she throws herself at Saint-Aubin; even, on a minor scale, Octave’s literal pursuit of Lisette around a table.

So these plots of love are paralleled among both classes, masters and servants; and individual characters will be paired in different combinations across class. Robert is a good example of this: at different times he’s matched with Octave, with Schumacher, with Marceau, and with André. These pairing and matchings across class are in a major and also a minor key: for the latter, see the way Robert is defended (against the aspersions that his Jewish roots make him unfit in the role of a French aristocrat) upstairs by the general and downstairs by the cook. Or, see how this paralleling can be expressed in the almost throw-away single shot of the servants glimpsed dancing outside in the corridor while the upper-class guests dance in the foreground.

There are two important rituals of entertainment acted out at La Colinière which foreshadow the tragic dénouement of the plot and which reflect back to add a critical dimension to what we are viewing. First, there is the hunt, which, for a Renoir film of this time, is uncharacteristic in its editing style: a large number of quickly edited short shots, ending in a paroxysm of violence as rabbits and birds are slaughtered. This motif of death is replayed in the dance macabre that forms one of the entertainment skits in the evening, and the hunt is then replayed as comic farce with Schumacher pursuing Marceau, firing his gun among the guests who remain oblivious to the reality of what’s happening here (as, by implication, they remain oblivious to the reality of what’s happening in the world outside). It is only one more step for Schumacher to turn this farce to the deadly serious death of André Jurieux, who twists and falls to the ground like one of the rabbits in the hunt. Ironically, Renoir gives us a longer shot of the dying rabbit at the end of the hunt sequence than he does here of André.

Renoir’s own character of Octave ultimately becomes the moral centre of the film. Initially, he is little more than a social parasite, the eternal friend that flits between the characters. But towards the end of the film he becomes consciously aware in two important scenes of the decadence of his own life and the society in which he has positioned himself. Firstly, when he escapes with Christine from the turmoil and farcical goings-on inside the château and stands on the steps outside, reliving for a moment his time in Salzburg with Christine’s father, a great conductor, in an imaginary performance which brings home to him the betrayal of his own artistic potential. And then, prior to a planned escape with Christine, he sees himself in the mirror, recognises the truth of himself, and renounces that escape. There is nothing left for him, after the final tragedy, but to remove himself, along with Marceau, from this world.

Originally, this was the ending planned for the film. But Renoir adds a final sequence of Robert standing on those same “performance” steps Octave had stood on, giving the official version of the death of André (which may not be believed but which everyone of whatever class here will accept), and inviting everyone to return inside. However, the final shot is not of those guests and servants re-entering the château. Rather, chillingly, it is of their shadows moving across the wall, as empty of body and stripped of substance as this film has revealed their society.

Technical Notes

Criterion has outdone themselves in the production of this 2-disc set (NTSC, region-free).

Disc 1 comprises, firstly, an introduction, filmed in 1961, by Renoir himself and an excellent digital transfer of the reconstructed version of the film (in 1.33:1 of course). The film comes with a slightly problematic commentary; problematic because although written by Alexander Sesonske (author of the superb Jean Renoir, The French Films, 1924-1939 [Harvard U.P., 1980]), it is read in a rather breathless and somewhat uninvolved manner by Peter Bogdanovich. Still, it is full of great detail and many insights. A very valuable video essay provides the ending of the 81-minute version, plus an analysis of the shooting script and a comparison by Christopher Faulkner of the endings of the original 81-minute release and the 106-minute reconstructed version. In an additional video essay, Faulkner analyses some selected scenes from the film.

As if this wasn’t enough, Disc 2 starts with the third episode (Criterion in its introduction calls it the second), La Règle et l’exception, of Jacques Rivette’s 1966 TV programme Jean Renoir, le patron. A pity Criterion couldn’t give us the programmme in its entirety; unfortunately they do have the habit of breaking up programmes and documentaries into little excerpts (see André S. Labarthe’s very unhappy open letter to Criterion in the December 2003 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma for more on this.) An additional documentary is the first part of David Thompson’s BBC film Jean Renoir (the second part has been reserved for Criterion’s box release of The Golden Coach, French Cancan, and Eléna et les hommes entitled Stage & Spectacle). There’s also a video essay covering the film’s production, release and reconstruction; a French TV programme where Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand discuss their work on the reconstruction; new interviews with Renoir’s son and assistant-cameraman Alain, set designer Max Doury, and actress Mila Parély (who played Geneviève); and text tributes from J. Hoberman, Kent Jones, Paul Schrader, and Wim Wenders, among others. The insert booklet contains an essay by Sesonske, longer pieces by Renoir, Bertrand Tavernier, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and two short pieces by François Truffaut.

It would be hard to make this any more definitive; a superb DVD release of one of the greatest films.


La Regle du Jeu

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