The Rules of the Game [La Règle du Jeu]

The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir (1939) [110 minutes]

Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is the prototypical example of the critical darling. This film has a tumultuous history. It went from being hated (and when I say hated, I’m not kidding), to being seen as one of the greatest films ever made. Whenever such a big change in public opinion occurs, it always leaves me curious. Why did all those people hate it? Why did people then love it? And most importantly: Will I/my lovely readers enjoy it?

The Rules of the Game is a tragic comedy-of-manners set in France. There is a large ensemble of characters, which on a first viewing are difficult to keep track of. The plot revolves around a series of romantic entanglements that come to light while this group is on a hunting trip to the French countryside. There are several plots involving the upstairs crowd (the wealthy couples) and the downstairs one (the servants and groundsmen). If you’re a fan of those kinds of dual, complementary tales (à la Downton Abbey), this movie is definitely worth a shot.

For me the key to understanding this film was to really pay attention. I know that sounds pretty basic, but believe me it’s trickier than it sounds. Renoir has so much stuff happening in a single shot, the audience really has to know where to look (and sometimes it’s at like 3 places at once!). He uses deep depth of field, or deep focus, to show different characters/objects in the foreground and background simultaneously. You will have two men arguing over a woman in the foreground; while in the background, she is sneaking off into an empty bedroom with another.

The mis-en-scene is also very “cluttered.” I use quotes here because I don’t mean to use that term pejoratively. The rooms are filled to the brim with antiques and opulence,  it serves to further highlight the outrageous lifestyle of the characters. The movie is a farce, rather than a true-to-life depiction of 1930’s France. This satire underscores the fact that their world is barely being held together by a set of rules. These rules must be followed, by both the wealthy and their servants, to avoid chaos. Of course, once the rules are ignored we are left to watch the delicious disaster that ensues.

Man of Many Hats: Jean Renoir is the director, writer, producer and actor in this film. He plays a the role of the bumbling jester for this elite crowd. He is in the picture at the top of the post, holding onto Christine (the only woman in the still).

Firey Reception: So, you remember how earlier I said that people really hated this film when it was released? I meant it. At the premiere, which Renoir attended, people were extremely angry. There was yelling and throwing things at the screen. The worst offender was this one man who was sitting in the theater with a newspaper. At some point he calmly unfolded his paper, stood up, took out some matches, set the paper on fire and attempted to burn the theater to the ground! That’s a pretty extreme reaction… watching it today it’s hard to see what in the film would warrant such desperation, but if you put it in context it is a little easier (not really, but we can try :P). This was released right before WWII broke out, so tensions were very high. Also, this film is a pointed critique of the stupidity and vanity of french society’s rules, of all social/financial levels, so maybe it felt a bit to truthful for them to handle.

General Tip about French Films: These kinds of movies start off REALLY slow. It feels like nothing at all is happening. They tend to pickup the pace at about the 30 minute mark, and then all the crazy, intense stuff happens. Most people who say “all French movies are so friggin’ boring,” in my opinion, don’t make it past those first 30 minutes. Which is really their loss!

How to Watch: Just pay attention. On a first viewing, you won’t get every nuance and detail, but it’s still very funny and a good time. This film is perfect for repeat viewings, every time you watch The Rules of the Game it just gets better and better.

Who to Watch This With: This film isn’t for kids. It’s very dialogue heavy and there are many confusing love triangles, hexagons, and so on. Also, there is a rather intense hunting scene. It is a very famous scene, one of the most famous in cinema history, but it is hard to watch. 

Final Verdict: The Rules of the Game is a very intimidating film to watch. It is so heavily praised, loved and revered, but remember it’s just a comedy. It’s okay to laugh! Sometimes I feel that when we watch a fancy-sounding, famous, french film, we forget that these films are supposed to be fun.  This film is silly. There is slap-stick and silly jokes, as well as drama and wit. This was made for the general public, like you and me, not an elite group of academics. So, have fun while you watch. Just because it’s old and french doesn’t mean it’s going to put you to sleep! So, sit back with some popcorn (or maybe a baguette or a nice pain au chocolat?) and enjoy.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! 😀

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