Blog Directory CineVerse: Why Rules still rules

Why Rules still rules

Monday, January 9, 2023

Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) set new cinematic rules of its own that many filmmakers followed and still abide by. Often ranking just behind Citizen Kane on the Sight and Sound poll conducted every 10 years, this masterwork can be challenging to fully appreciate on first watch. Last week, our CineVerse group honed in on what makes Rules such a fantastic film (a recording of our group discussion is available here). Here’s an outline of our discussion points.

What did you find memorable, distinctive, unexpected, or different about The Rules of the Game?

  • The film is an audiovisual wonder for a 1939 feature.
    • Years before Orson Welles and Greg Toland astounded the film world with deep focus photography in Citizen Kane, Renoir was experimenting with this technique in The Rules of the Game, creating remarkable shots that often feature the foreground, middle ground, and background in focus, with all three planes occupied by characters and action. It helps that Renoir shot within expansive rooms and deep corridors that enable the players greater spatial latitude.
    • In addition, the fluidity of camera movement is impressive throughout Rules, as evidenced by plentiful pans, trucks, and graceful moves between rooms and characters. In fact, it’s estimated that half of the shots in the film involve a moving camera. Long before mobile cameras were invented, the filmmakers seemed to flit and float between spaces with a nimbleness and elegance that makes the picture feel more kinetic and alive. Equally impressive is that Renoir doesn’t overly rely on reverse shots or close-ups; two-shots dominate in Rules, but the camera movements break up any monotony that excessive two-shots would otherwise create. Renoirs flowing camera allows the narrative to unfold more efficiently.
    • The sound design and audio approach in Rules are also extraordinary for the time, as we often hear overlapping dialogue and simultaneous background sounds that break from the linear audio conventions of that era.
  • Interestingly, two-thirds of the movie was unscripted, thanks to Renoir permitting his players to improvise their dialogue. Renoir also revised his script during shooting and enabled his actors to fine-tune their characters as shooting progressed. Consequently, much of what we see feels organic, spontaneous, and authentic, including many of the performances, conversations, and actions.
  •  The hunt serves as the standout sequence of the movie, haunting us with its quickening shots, sudden and percussive violence, and disturbing realism (these are real animals actually being killed).
    • Criterion Collection essayist Alexander Sesonske wrote: “The centerpiece of Renoir’s intricate structure, the pivot on which the action turns, the symbolic core of his critique of French society, is the hunt, the scene that most clearly reveals the volcano that seethes beneath the dancers. In a film whose shots often run for a minute or more, here fifty-one shots appear in less than four minutes, in a mounting rhythm of cutting and movement that culminates in an awesome barrage of gunfire as, in twenty-two shots—fifty-three seconds—twelve animals die. Surely one of the most powerful scenes in all of cinema.”
  • Arguably, there is no main protagonist or antagonist, no hero or villain of the story. This is more of an ensemble piece in which the rules themselves are the villain and source of conflict.
  • While the film on one hand serves as a scathing criticism of these characters and what they represent, it also shows their good attributes. Renoir demonstrates empathy and humanism for these characters, making many pitiable and tragic in counterbalance to their immoral and negative qualities.
  • Likewise, the film has interesting tonal shifts, largely because Renoir shows his characters' negative and positive sides.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Chuck Bowen wrote: “Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game has been part of the film canon for so long that it’s valuable to remind audiences how gloriously alive and just plain fun it is. Low comedy walks hand and hand with tragedy and beauty throughout; the film is frothy one minute, nearly apocalyptic the next, and so you’re never fully allowed to gather your bearings. The Rules of the Game has a tone that could be symbolized by the escalating merry-go-round that prominently plays into the climax of Strangers on a Train—up and down, all around and seemingly totally out of control…The Rules of the Game is so graceful with its volley of character trade-offs, both romantic and platonic, that you can’t help but fall in a kind of love with it, a qualified love that still understands the sourness, the sadness, that gently informs every part of the film.”

Major themes

  • Social hierarchy and class distinctions. This story shows two social classes: the upper-middle-class that occupies the upstairs, as represented by Robert, Christine, Andre, Genevieve, and Octave; and the working/servant class who dwells downstairs, exemplified by Schumacher, Marceau, and Lisette. This is a tale of the haves and the have-nots and the contrasts between these classes, but it also compares them by presenting “matched opposing pairs.”
    • Sesonske further wrote: “For characters, (Renoir) began with…jealous husband, faithful wife, despairing lover, and intervening friend. Doubling this group then yielded the central opposing pairs in The Rules of the Game: matched sets of husbands, wives, lovers, mistresses, and friends—one set among the masters, the other among the servants, thus evoking one of Renoir’s perennial themes, the relations among classes.
  • The dangers of moral indifference. The Rules of the Game was intended as an allegorical critique of the haute bourgeoisie and ruling class in France in the late 1930s, whose apathy about and appeasement of the spreading Nazi threat resulted in disastrous consequences for France and Europe. The hunting scene and its disturbing visuals serve as a metaphor for the real-world brutality coming to Europe as well as a foreshadowing of the later killing of Andre, an innocent victim of violence.
    • Consider the scene where Schumacher is chasing after Marceau with a gun on the upper level as bullets whiz around the upper-class occupants, most of whom don’t seem distressed by this threat of violence and injury.
    • Ponder, too, how Robert downplays Andre’s killing as an accident, convincing his party attendees that these unfortunate circumstances will all be sorted out later. No one expresses shock or alarm about the death or the chaos that has ensued earlier.
    • Additionally, recall the “dance of death” performed by the party attendees dressed as skeletons and ghosts as Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” music plays. This dance is another example of how the upper class is acting frivolously and silly, even mocking death metaphorically as Hitler’s forces begin to close in around Europe.
    • Renoir said of his film: “It was shot between Munich and the war, and I shot it absolutely impressed, absolutely disturbed by the state of mind of a part of French society, a part of English society, a part of world society. And it seemed to me that a way of interpreting this state of mind, to the world hopefully, was not to talk of that situation, but tell a frivolous story… I had desired to do something like this for a long time, to show a rich, complex society where—to use a historic phrase—we are dancing on a volcano.”
  • Playing by and breaking the rules. This film suggests that there are often unfair and inconsistent rules set by society and played in the game of love.
    • This group of characters – standing in for French society – conforms to etiquette, codes, and conventions that other societies would find immoral, such as the freedom to cheat on your partner and have both secret and open affairs that prioritize sexual satisfaction. Two characters – Andre and Schumacher – break these rules by expressing romantic love and devotion to one person, acting idealistically and sincerely, and (in the case of Schumacher) adhering to marriage vows with utter seriousness. It’s no coincidence, then, that these two characters suffer the biggest consequences by the conclusion.
    • This theme may also help explain Octave’s famous quote: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” Substitute the word “reasons” with “rules” and it’s easy to decipher that life and love are difficult to navigate when everybody sets and plays by their own rules.
  • Insiders vs. outsiders. Robert, Christine, Genevieve, and most of their guests are privileged elite—“insiders” who are part of society’s established order and who abide by its rules and conventions. Andre, Octave, Marceau, and Schumacher are outsiders who don’t neatly fit into this clique and are eventually cast out of or leave the world of the insiders. Yet, Renoir isn’t so cut-and-dried and simplistic here; in this film, insiders can also be outsiders and vice versa.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “It is Robert who understands the game and the world the best, perhaps because as a Jew he stands a little outside of it. His passion is for mechanical wind-up mannequins and musical instruments, and there is a scene where he unveils his latest prize, an elaborate calliope, and stands by proudly as it plays a tune while little figures ring bells and chime notes. With such a device, at least everything works exactly as expected…The finished shot, ending with Robert's face, is a study in complexity, and Renoir says it may be the best shot he ever filmed. It captures the buried theme of the film: That on the brink of war they know what gives them joy but play at denying it, while the world around them is closing down joy, play and denial.”

Similar works

  • Gosford Park
  • Smiles of a Summer Night
  • The Hunt
  • Summer Light
  • Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills
  • The Decline of the American Empire
  • The Big Chill
  • The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
  • Dangerous Liaisons

Other major works by Jean Renoir

  • Grand Illusion
  • The Human Beast
  • The River
  • Boudu Saved From Drowning
  • The Lower Depths
  • La Marseillaise

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