Re-reading the rules: Renoir's La Regle du jeu reconsidered.
During the heyday of Cahiers du cinema and the politique des auteurs--the so-called auteur theory--the young French cinema was rejecting the established criteria of cinematic merit, which had much to do with literary orthodoxy and which celebrated such cinematically barren but financially successful films as Marcel Pagnol's popular pre-war trilogy Marius, Fanny, Cesar (all three adapted from Pagnol's own plays). The Cahiers critics favored a cinema of authorial primacy for the writer-director that ignored the pedigree of literary antecedents preferred by their elders. And the critical impulse that brought auteurism into vogue prepared the way for the intensely personal cinema of the nouvelle vague, the New Wave of critics-turned-filmmakers who shocked the bourgeoisie at the same time as they energized French moviemaking.
That the Cahierists, who hoisted the "auteurial" flag and gave the world the New Wave, venerated Renoir above all other French filmmakers is not a surprise. Renoir took chances, made films on risk or instinct, insulted political sensibilities, challenged the Hollywood studio system during his self-imposed wartime exile, and actually managed to make some interesting movies in the United States despite the best efforts of American producers not to understand him. Certainly, few today would dispute Renoir's status as one of the greatest of all filmmakers, and most would accept that the films made between 1932 and 1939 (from Boudu sauve des eaux, that is, to La Regle du jeu) consist of his best work and some of the best work ever committed to the screen.
Indeed, Renoir's pre-war films were received, upon re-release, with an enthusiasm they had rarely received the first time around. This was particularly true of what, along with La Grande illusion (1937), many today consider his very best work: La Regle du jeu (1939). It had initially been attacked by hostile Parisians as frivolous, clumsy, and downright incomprehensible, yet La Regle du jeu (The Rule[s] of the Game) is now generally regarded as a masterpiece. (2) There is a strange side to the film, however. What most critics and reference books say concerning it--and they tend to say much the same thing--does not, to put it bluntly, square with the facts.
Let me quote from Peter France's New Oxford Companion to Literature in French (1995): La Regle du jeu is "about an aristocratic house-party that is a microcosm of the corruptness and exhaustion of French society on the eve of World War II." (3) Here is Philip Kemp, in the liner notes to the 2003 BFI DVD of the film: "The seemingly elegant, old-world gathering is riven with rancour and hatreds, social, political, and racial. The rules of the game are designed to exclude those who fail to grasp the unspoken assumptions behind them." (4) According to Celia Bertin, in her biography lean Renoir: A Life in Pictures (1991), Renoir "wanted to tell the story of people dancing on a volcano.... He knew that the slaughter of rabbits and pheasants prefigures the death of men. War was inevitable, and he was thinking about it all the time now." (5) (As Bertin also tells us, however, Renoir "felt the need to express his anxiety by imagining what he called 'a happy drama' [un drame gai]" ).
From French Cinema from Its Beginnings to the Present (2002), by Remi Fournier Lanzoni, I shall give a longer extract, along much the same lines:
This fantasy is a mundane massacre, and a sharp vision of prewar social degeneration, with a hint of several theatrical traditions (Beaumarchais, Musset, Marivaux).... This comedy, which veered inescapably into a dramatic finale, illustrated a series of ruptures in the social order. For example, the scene showing the senseless carnage of rabbits in the forest became an omen for the disproportionate combats that occurred a few weeks later all over Europe, and it exemplified society's plunge into pointless violence.... Throughout the film, viewers can feel that the rise of the impending threat of a possible world conflict, coupled with a deep apprehension of hostile foreign neighbors, had generated a defeatist mind-set about the prospects for the future of France. (6)
What on earth, one asks oneself, is one to make of this? It seems quite baseless. None of the characters in Renoir's film even mention war or the future of France; and it is not clear how a massacre of rabbits, or indeed of anything, can "become" an omen. Still, that did not deter Alexander Sesonke, writing for Criterion in 2003, from opining something similar to what Lanzoni says:
By February 1939 it no longer seemed evident that the surrender of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler at Munich "saved the peace." Soon a sense of doom would hang over Europe. In this atmosphere Jean Renoir, anticipating war and deeply troubled by the mood he felt around him, thought he might best interpret that state of mind by creating a story in the spirit of French comic theater, from Marivaux to de Musset, a tradition in which the force that sets every character in motion is love and the characters have no other occupation but to interfere with this pursuit. (7)
Here is Christopher Faulkner, echoing Sesonske two years later--and finding yet another omen for the world war to come, not in the rabbit hunt, but in the hunt (from Renoir's La Vie est a nous ) that prefigures it:
The Rules of the Game is a report on the condition of French society on the eve of the Second World War.... The film exposes the hypocrisy, ignorance, cynicism, and moral turpitude of a society in the face of what it perceives to be imminent threats to its security....The hunt sequence [itself] recalls a scene in Renoir's Life Is Ours, in which members of the upper class dressed for the hunt take target practice at cardboard cutouts of French workers. The war ... can [thus] be understood as class war as well as international war. (8)
Moreover, what is all this that Philip Kemp tells us about the "elegant, old-world gathering" at the Marquis de la Chesnaye's chateau being "riven with rancour and hatreds, sodal, political and racial" (note 4)? As to race, there is only a single brief reference to it in the film. One of the servants at the downstairs dining table says that it should be remembered that Chesnaye is a "Yid" (meaning that his mother was Jewish), but the Chef avers, firmly, that nevertheless the Marquis (played by the same actor who played the wealthy Jew Rosenthal in La Grande illusion: Marcel Dalio) has "quality." That he has "class" is also what the elderly General (who, if anyone, might have been expected to harbor social prejudices) is quick to affirm in Chesnaye's defense, when a guest hints that the Marquis has told a lie. Apart from this, one would seek in vain for signs of "rancour and hatreds," any more than of Celia Bertin's "volcano" (note 5).
As for the New Oxford Companion's "corruptness and exhaustion of French society on the eve of World War II," one is struck by the zest and energy, the noisy and joyous brio, of Chesnaye's guests on their arrival at La Coliniere (the country estate where Renoir's story takes place). It sets the tone for the excited swiftness, the sense of ceaseless movement, running through the film and complemented by Renoir's ever mobile camera. Nor is any of the guests, so far as one can see, noticeably "corrupt." Yet the tendency to see them as such goes back a long way: Gerald Mast, for instance, writing in 1973, declared that "the tendency to see [La Regle du jeu] as a purely satirical indictment of a corrupt social system dominates the reviews written since the reconstructed print of the film appeared in 1959." (9) And Robin Wood, in 1984, argued that the film was detested when it first appeared precisely because it was "satirizing the corruption of the French ruling class on the brink of the Second World War." (10)
The structure of La Regle du jeu is a descendant of the comic French theater of the eighteenth century, and that should tell us something more about its subject matter than what the critics have deduced. An opening title quotes Beaumarchais, one of the comic dramatists of that century, and all during the film there are echoes of other dramatic works from centuries in addition to the eighteenth--works by Marivaux and de Musset, also Molihre and Feydeau and even Shakespeare and Jonson, indeed many masters of classical comedy. (11) It is therefore no accident that the film's major-domo, one ot the figures of competence and order, is named Corneille, the great French neoclassical tragedian, who placed duty before passion.
La Regle du jeu manipulates throughout the devices of classical comedy. There are parallel actions on the part of masters and servants, the activities of the lower classes being a "vulgar" and low-comic mirror of those in the upper ones. As in classical comedy, the subject matter is love--requited and unrequited; requited and then unrequited; unrequited and then requited--as well as the consequent errors of love--jealousy, misinterpretation, and misunderstanding. The narrative of the film plays several interlocking love triangles against the background of the two societies--that of the masters and the servants. And it does so with a fondness for the theatrical group shot in which several characters are linked and the continuous re-framings, along with the entrances and exits, ensure that the spectator's gaze is constantly transferring itself from character to character, action to action, as it would be in the theater--with few close-ups and point-of-view shots. (12) There are even such classical comic devices as the interwoven chase (various lovers weaving in and out of rooms searching for their own beloved), the mistaken identity arising from a piece of clothing (Lisette's cloak and Octave's raincoat), and the farcical slap in the face and kick up the backside (the fights between Andre and Saint-Aubin, Andre and the Marquis de la Chesnaye).
Most like the classical theater, and in fact like any traditional French play, La Regle du jeu is composed of five acts. The overall structure of the film, as in classical comedy, is to introduce the individual human pieces in the early acts, to bring them together shortly thereafter, to scramble them in the middle acts, and then to sort them out for the conclusion. The great difference, of course, between Renoir's film and classical comedy--a difference that he deliberately manipulates--is that his film contains a number of events, characters, and themes not usually found in traditional comedy. Whereas traditional comedy often ends with a party, a dance, and even a marriage, Renoir chooses not to end his film with a party but to add a serious, melancholy, and altogether catastrophic act after the party ends. This inspired juxtaposition of serious material and comic devices is ultimately what gives La Regle du jeu its dramatic power, its human complexity, and its intellectual richness.
The leading character in the film, the Marquis de la Chesnaye, himself is an impressive and most attractive figure. The Marquis is enlightened and egalitarian, a hater of all barriers--including social ones; and, being a man of feeling, he is also a masterly handier of human crises. He is evidently a magnificent host, having arranged for his guests, in addition to a hunt, several brilliant little fancydress entertainments on his private stage. The film is, among other things, a warm tribute to him and his values.
It is for Chesnaye a "rule of the game" that, if somebody falls in love with one's partner and the love is returned, it is contemptible to nurse vindictive feelings, and even more so to act on them. In this he contrasts with a friend of his, Andre Jurieu, a young aviator. Andre is in love with Chesnaye's wife, Christine, and is determined to make a tragic and public business of it. Chesnaye himself has for several years, unknown to Christine, had a mistress, Genevieve--a fact that his wife finds out by accident during the hunt. But Christine proves to adhere to her husband's "rule of the game" quite as firmly as he does; and, indeed, as the fruit of some frank conversation, she and his lover Genevieve are soon the best of friends. Chesnaye's love for Christine has actually revived, but her own feelings are in a muddle, for she does not know what she wants.
Chesnaye's "rule" is an excellent one but more suited to a leisured aristocrat than to someone like the gamekeeper Schumacher, who has to work for his livelihood. It is one of Schumacher's grievances that he so rarely can see his wife, Lisette, who, as Christine's chambermaid, spends much of the time with her mistress in Paris. Another of his grievances is that Chesnaye has recently encountered a wily poacher named Marceau at La Coliniere, and, being greatly taken with the man, has taken him into his household. Marceau is trying to seduce Lisette, and the jealous Schumacher, finding the two in each other's arms, chases Marceau through the house, threatening to kill him--only to be thwarted by Chesnaye.
Eventually it becomes plain to Chesnaye that Andre has won Christine's affections, and, forgetting his "rule" for a moment, the Marquis gets into a fistfight with him. Then, coming to his senses, he is full of abject apologies for his shameful behavior, and soon the two are as good friends as ever. We are approaching the climax of the film when Christine, beset by Andre, tells him that she will run away with him if it can be done this very instant, without further ado. But he, too, has a "rule": Chesnaye is a friend and his host, he says, and it would simply be impossible to take such a step without telling him first.
Christine is then seen strolling with Octave in the gardens, in the chilly night air, and she says that it is really not Andre she loves but Octave himself. The bumbling and serf-doubting, yet warm-hearted Octave (played by Renoir himself) seems convinced and believes that she is ready to elope with him; but he is brought to his senses by Lisette, who joins them and tells him angrily that he is too old for an affair with her beloved mistress. Christine is anxious at this point not to have to return to the chateau, so they put Lisette's cloak round her for warmth and Octave promises to fetch her own cloak for her from the chateau. Andre now appears, asking where Christine is, and Octave--silently renouncing all his own hopes--urges him to join her, putting his own coat round Andre's shoulders.
Meanwhile Schumacher, reconciled in his misery to Marceau (for Chesnaye has dismissed them both), has fetched his shotgun and is sitting with him, watching the scene from the shadows. He is misled by the cloak into thinking that the woman he sees is his wife, Lisette; and when Andre--whom he mistakes for Octave--approaches, he shoots him. Summoning his guests to the steps of the chateau, Chesnaye tells them the news and, with his usual resourcefulness, explains that the killing was an accident--as of course, in a sense, it was. Naturally, the group willingly and unemotionally agrees to accept what Chesnaye says as a gentlemanly display of good form.
Told like this, the plot of La Regle du jeu is surely not--not at all--what the critics' account of it would have led us to expect. I used to be puzzled by their interpretation, but I now think it derives from a misunderstanding. After the film, to Renoir's bewilderment and dismay, went down extremely badly on its first showing in 1939, being hissed and jeered at, he decided either to give up filmmaking or to leave France. The reason for the bad reception, it appears, is that--for a predominantly left-wing audience, rightly obsessed, as Renoir himself was, by the imminent threat of a world war--La Regle du jeu was far too sympathetic towards the French aristocracy, and in particular towards the Marquis de la Chesnaye. (13) Thus, the lacerating reflections about the "degeneracy" of French society that critics find in it represent what (in their view) Renoir ought to have expressed, though in fact he did not.
Renoir's own account in his autobiography, My Life and My Films, of how La Regle du jeu came to be conceived is that it was inspired by French eighteenth-century music--Couperin, Rameau, Mozart. Indeed, we are given a few bars of Mozart's "Three German Dances, K. 605" at the beginning and the end of the film. (It is complemented by what one could call the "visual" music in La Regle du jeu, which comes from Renoir's depth-of-field shooting, enabling the staging of simultaneous foreground and background actions that often operate like counterpoint in music.) He had developed a great liking for such music, and it made him wish to film the "sort of people who danced to it." (14) They would, in the nature of things, have been aristocrats, and their outlook would very likely have been a "libertine" one. It would, he felt, be interesting to see what such people would be like if transposed to modern times. Renoir was, as he himself said, meaning to create a drame gai, a light-hearted drama in the style of The Marriage of Figaro (1784).
Accordingly, after the film's credits, these are the lines we are shown, on a placard, from Act IV, scene 10 of Beaumarchais's play:
Coeurs sensibles, coeurs fideles, Qui blamez l'amour leger, Cessez vos plaintes cruelles: Est-ce un crime de changer? (Weak of heart, faithful hearts, Who condemn light-hearted love, Stop your cruel complaints: Is it a crime to change?; my translation)
Since we know from Renoir's own words that he was at this time, 1939, quite alarmed (as were many other intelligent people) by the terrifying prospect of a new world war, we can deduce that his film was clearly intended as an antidote to, or escape
from, such alarm or anxiety. That in places it would, nevertheless, be extremely poignant, should not surprise anyone familiar with Beaumarchais's Marriage of Figaro (itself per formed on the eve of the French Revolution but, like La Regle du jeu in relation to World War II, offsetting this cataclysm rather than foretelling it) or especially Mozart's 1786 operatic version of it.
After all, Renoir knew that the perfect grace and orderly, delicate perfection of the eighteenth century (the century that produced Mozart, Chesnaye's chateau, his aristocratic way of life, and his mechanical music boxes) could no longer exist in the twentieth century, with its airplanes, automobiles, radios, telephones, mass destruction, and empowered masses. To prefer the stability of the old order to the terrifying instability of the new disorder (as do the two aristocratic military officers, one French and one German, in Renoir's other masterpiece, La Grande illusion) is both human and understandable. It is also, unfortunately, an anachronism, and therefore a human impossibility. Still, even though the lower classes' dream of material ease and democratic freedom may point the way in which the world will go, the aristocratic ethos of noblesse oblige, of gentlemanly honor and chivalric spirit, embodies what the world will lose by going there.
In addition to knowing something about the onrush of modernity, Renoir knew that the order or rules of society and the chaos of passion are both necessary for human survival, that each threatens the existence of the other, and that neither of the two can be excluded from a meaningful life. The human condition for Renoir in La Regle du jeu is thus a delicate balance between the demands of order and spontaneity. But failure at this balancing act is as inevitable as the act itself. Man must juggle the two demands and he must also fail to juggle them perfectly, for they cannot ever be juggled perfectly. And the idea that human beings have been assigned an impossible task at which they are doomed to fail is one of the major components of the film's tone, contributing to the cold, acidic current, the black, grim, even tragic thread, which winds through this sometimes farcical comedy. La Regle du jeu may be light-hearted, then, but darkness nonetheless runs all through it.
In the face of the highly negative reception given to the film, however, Renoir began to have misgivings about its nuanced lightness, as he tells us in My Life and My Films. Ali he had had in mind originally had been "nothing avant-garde but a good little orthodox film" (172), and he had been utterly dumbfounded at finding that "the film, which I wanted to be a pleasant one, rubbed most people the wrong way" (172). This reception made him begin to ask himself, had he been right in making no allusion to the threat of war in his film? Did the film, perhaps, give a shameful picture of present-day France? He mentioned these wonderings of his to others, though he found no answer to them, and maybe they were the origin of later critical attitudes--including, rather startlingly his own, for, in 1974 in My Life and My Films, he went so far as to call La Regle du jeu a "war film ... that attacks the very structure of our society" (171).
In any event, Renoir did leave France, which in the end may not have been very good for him as a filmmaker. As for the film itself, when it was shown again in the 1950s, the French--released from the pressures of the grave year 1939--fell in love with it (and not only they), and it quickly acquired its present very high reputation as one of the best movies ever made. Far from perceiving in La Regle du jeu evidence of the "corruption" and "exhaustion" in French society that led to the country's defeat and occupation by the Germans during World War II, audiences in France now blithely saw the film for what it was--not for what historicist critics, as well as the elderly, legacy-conscious Renoir, wanted it to be.
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Bergstrom, Janet. "Jean Renoir's Return to France" (1996). In Exile and Creativity: Signposts, Travelers, Outsiders, Backward Glances. Ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1998. 180-219.
Bertin, Celia. Jean Renoir: A Life in Pictures. 1986. Trans. Mireille and Leonard Muellner. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.
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Brooks, Charles William. "Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game." French Historical Studies 7.2 (Autumn 1971): 264-283.
Budgen, Suzanne. "Some Notes on the Sources of La Regle du jeu." Take One (Montreal) 1.12 (July-August 1968): 8-10.
Conley, Tom. "The Laws of the Game: Jean Renoir, La Regle du jeu." In Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts. Ed. John Denvir. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1996. 96-117.
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(1) Truffaut cited in Philip Kemp (1987).
(2) As a result of the French public's violently negative reaction to La Regle du jeu, Renoir re-cut the film. A 113-minute film soon became 100 minutes long; then it became 90 minutes and finally 85. After finally being pulled from distribution, the original negative of La Regle du jeu was stored away in a warehouse that was bombed by the Allies in 1942. The shortened version of the film was re-released in 1949 in Great Britain and in 1950 in New York. It wasn't until 1959 that it was restored to nearly its original form by Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand, who gathered up hundreds of cans of footage and pieced the film together with the help of Renoir. The restored La Regle du jeu had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 1959.
(3) Peter France, ed., The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French (New York: Oxford UP, 1995), 684.
(4) Philip Kemp, Liner Notes to the DVD of La Regle du jeu (London: BFI Video, 2003).
(5) CeliaBertin, Jean Renoir: A Life in Pictures, trans. Mireille and Leonard Muellner (1986; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991), 161.
(6) Remi Fournier Lanzoni, French Cinema from Its Beginnings to the Present (New York: Continuum, 2002), 92, 94.
(7) Alexander Sesonske, Booklet Essay to the DVD of La Regle du jeu (New York: The Criterion Collection, 2003).
(8) Christopher Faulkner, "The Rules of the Game: A Film Not Like the Others," in Film Analysis: A Reader, ed. Jeffrey Geiger and R. L. Rutsky (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 302-303. For a summary of historically-inspired approaches to La Regle du jeu since its re-release, see Keith Reader, La Regle du jeu: French Film Guide (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010), 88-96. What follows is a further sampling of such approaches:
"Renoir's realista allows us to perceive the real tragedy underlying the superficial frivolity of the Coliniere society: their spiritual uncertainty has produced a breakdown of the old system of values and of differences that makes for the kind of sacrificial crisis in which violence becomes the inevitable result.... The violence will not end until some means is found to stop the erosion of values and the surge of hypocrisy that characterize France of 1939." (T. Jefferson Kline, Unraveling French Cinema: From L'Atalante" to Cache [Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010], 52.)
"What gives the film its edge, what makes the theatrical frivolity so culpable, is the lurking presence of death and war that is present from the moment the film takes us to La Coliniere. Gunshots are heard from the neighbouring estate where a cull of rabbits is underway, a cull with sinister echoes for a France bounded by Nazi Germany and a Spain in the final stages of civil war. The gamekeeper, Schumacher, has a Germanic name, and a distinct willingness to use guns against people as well as animals ... The posture of the dead Jurieu, executed in full flight, visually echoes the slaughter of the fleeing animals and further serves to equate the hunt's savagery with the human slaughter of war." (Martin O'Shaughnessy, Jean Renoir [Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000], 148.)
"Raw instincts, physical strength, and willpower ... combined with the now corrupt and degenerate remains of the old society, are what make for the world of The Rules of the Game, a world so clearly on the brink of an abyss. There is little doubt that Renoir's films reflected the increasing bewilderment in 1930s France over the nature of the anticipated next war." (69 in Omer Bartov, "Martyrs' Vengeance: Memory, Trauma, and Fear of War in France, 1918-1940," in Joel Blatt, ed., The French Defeat of 1940: Reassessments [1998; London: Berghahn Books, 2006], 54-84.)
"'People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses,' Renoir ... wrote in explaining the reaction to La Regle du jeu, echoing Carne's charge against audiences who blame cinematic barometers. After being obsessed for so long with male weakness, many in France finally banished anxiety--committed suicide--by relinquishing responsibility and turning their fates over to authoritarian leaders, first the French military and then Petain. Temporarily bolstered by the 1939 call to arms, they banished images of weakness, only to experience the return of their self-doubts when the Germans penetrated their Maginot defenses. Perhaps in 1940 they experienced a momentary relief in having their worst fears realized and in surrendering ... to the seemingly inevitable shadows. However, those films that had barometrically foretold the surrender, like Quai des brumes and Regle du jeu, had to be banned as humiliating witnesses." (50-51 in Robin Bates, "Audiences on the Verge of a Fascist Breakdown: Male Anxieties and Late 1930s French Film," Cinema Journal 36.3 [Spring 1997], 25-55.)
"Now the order of the film would tend to imply that the illegalisms practiced by the aristocracy (most obviously, adultery) amount to a waste of time when the nation would better be readying itself against armed, trigger-happy enemies stationed near the border of Alsace-Lorraine; that the week spent at the chateau is tantamount to the French Sitzkrieg at the moment when Nazi Germany was about to launch its Blitzkrieg." (103 in Tom Conley, "The Laws of the Game: Jean Renoir, La Regle du jeu," in John Denvir, ed., Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts [Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1996], 96-117.)
"The Rules of the Game, made on the very eve of World War II, exposes how far the disintegration of French social life had gone. It is a unique historical document, one which dissects the spirit of a people already defeated internally and merely awaiting the end at the hand of an external executioner." (267 in Charles William Brooks, "Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game," French Historical Studies 7.2 [Autumn 1971], 264-283.)
(9) Gerald Mast, "The Rules of the Game": Filmguide Series (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1973), 69-70.
(10) Robin Wood, "La Regle du jeu," in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Films, ed. Christopher Lyon (New York: Putnam, 1984), 390.
(11) The theatrical origins of La Regle du jeu have been widely documented. Indeed, Leo Braudy declares that "La Regle du Jeu makes the retreat into theater its main subject" (Jean Renoir: The World of His Films [1972; New York: Columbia UP, 1989], 89). (Braudy also argues, however--somewhat like the historically-inspired critics of Renoir's film--that it "embodies a social world in which there are rules but no values.... Poised on the edge of World War I].... La Regle du Jeu presents a society that has refined feelings to the utmost, in order to stave off the demands of rime and history" .) Here is a sampling of other places where the relationship of La Regle du jeu to the theater is discussed: Keith Reader," La Regle du jeu: French Film Guide (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010), 2; Martin O'Shaugnessy, Jean Renoir (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000), 146-147; Ronald Bergan, Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook P, 1994), 197, 204; Celia Bertin, Jean Renoir: A Life in Pictures, trans. Mireille and Leonard Muellner (1986; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991), 157, 162; Alexander Sesonske, Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924-1939 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1980), 390-391; Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir (Berkeley: U of California P, 1974), 192. Gilberto Perez is worth quoting at length on the subject:
"It may seem surprising that a film so lively and delightful, a comedy of love in society that calls to mind Marivaux and Beaumarchais--and Beaumarchais's musical refashioner, Mozart--should have met with so hostile a response from the public. But The Rules of the Game is a tragedy cast in the form of a comedy.... The portrayal of the upper class in The Rules of the Game employs the form of classical comedy with an irony grown mordant, devastating, despairing. Tragedy is traditionally the form of singularity, comedy the form of community. The Rules of the Game is a tragedy of community. Its fatality resides not in the singular individual, the hero with a tragic flaw--its characters have the flaws of common humanity, the flaws of comedy--but in the order of a society that does violence to nature and human nature, a society that fails to accommodate its individuals into a sustaining community.... The Rules of the Game enacts the tragedy of a society no longer capable of comedy." (The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000], 198.)
(12) Renoir's most celebrated stylistic hallmark was just such an ingestion into cinematic syntax of theatrical "place," composition, and--as possible--duration: the combination, that is, of the flow of cinema with the relationships within a flame that are standard practice in the theater. The basis of this style is deep-focus shooting combined with the "sequence shot"--i.e., the shot that contains a sequence of action. In the deep-focus approach, the reliance is on the content of any one shot, rather than on a succession of shots as in montage. The shot is held and people may come in or leave; the camera itself may move (as Renoir's often adroitly does): it's the absence of cutting that makes the difference, the exploitation of different planes of depth within one shot to make the film progress, rather than the addition of new views.
Renoir didn't invent this idea--you can see the conscious, deliberate use of it in Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) in the scene where the posse captures the bandits--but he used it as a principle, a reaction against the principle of montage that had been dominant since D. W. Griffith (who was quickly followed in this approach by Eisenstein and Pudovkin). To many, the idea of composition in depth was a philosophical position. Andre Bazin, who mutatis mutandis was Aristotle to Renoir's Sophocles, said that such a cinematic style was capable of expressing everything without fragmenting the world, of revealing the hidden meaning in people, places, and things without disturbing the unity natural to them. (Montage, by contrast, relies on joining bits and pieces of film together in rhythmic and pictorial relationships so that an effect is created out of the very way the pieces are joined, an effect additional to the effects of the separate bits unto themselves.)
Renoir's own rationale for his camera style was his belief in the primacy of the actor as focus of cinematic interest and source of inspiration. My own view is that Renoir was at least partially motivated by sheer confidence, in himself and in film. He felt that the (still-young) film medium no longer needed to prove its selfhood by relying so heavily on a technique that no other art could employ. The cinema could now be sure enough of itself to translate into its own language a lexicon from another art, the theater. Indeed, Renoir went on to include literal theatrical imagery in his films, from La Chienne (adapted from the play by Andre Mouezy-Eon) in 1931 to his last one, which was actually titled The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir. And, in the 1950s, he directed three plays, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a comedy of his own, and Odets's The Big Knife. (The world premiere of his play Carola, directed by Renoir, took place in 1960 at the University of California, Berkeley.)
It is mainly because of his theater-in-film style (though there are other reasons) that Renoir had such an enormous influence on subsequent filmmakers: the Italian neorealists (perhaps above all Luchino Visconti, who had worked as Renoir's assistant on Toni  and several other pictures), Orson Welles, Satyajit Ray, and Francois Truffaut, to name a few outstanding examples.
(13) The argument over Renoir's oeuvre frequently takes on such a political dimension. Many of those disappointed by the later films--from 1940 onwards--ascribe his decline (as they see it) to an abdication from political commitment. Indeed, there are those who feel that with his departure for America in 1940 Renoir's career went into a decline from which, despite some tine moments, it never really recovered. For many critics, on the other hand, the late films are no less great than the earlier ones, merely different: masterworks of pantheistic humanism produced by a supreme moviemaker mellowing into tranquil, autumnal richness. The love of life, the sense of nature, the texture and density of the earlier pictures remain, but the concern with transient social objectives is transmuted into an all-embracing affirmation, a belief in art as an expression of the ultimate harmony of existence.
Conversely, there are those who have tried to play down or explain away the polemical content of the pre-war pictures, suggesting that The Crime of Monsieur Lange, with its popular Front characterizations (Renoir was involved in French Communist Party activities during the mid-1930s), smells altogether too strongly of the poetic realism of Jacques Prevert, or that Renoir, tolerant and obliging as ever, made The People of France (1936) mainly to gratify his friends. Ultimately, though, as in the especial case of La Regle du jeu, debate over Renoir's "true" political views may be beside the point. If the aspirations of the Popular Front lend an added bite and immediacy to Renoir's films of the period, they hardly account for the consistent richness and vitality of his total output, even less for its curiously pervasive melancholy. Even overtly optimistic pictures such as The Crime of Monsieur Lange and French Cancan (1955) are tinged with poignancy, while sadness suffuses the comedy in La Regle du jeu as well as The Elusive Corporal (1962).
It is this complex of conflicting emotions--of ambiguities, tensions, and uncertainties--underlying all his work that makes the earlier pictures so rewarding on each re-viewing, and which redeems the later ones from triteness. From the innate contradictions within his psyche, then, Renoir created movies that, despite (or even because of) their weaknesses, seem to breathe life. Without a doubt, few other directors have succeeded in conveying so intensely a sense of messy, turbulent, unstructured reality in the cinema. Perhaps this is because of still another paradox or tension in Renoir's aesthetic self: for he was the prime exponent on film of unanism, the poetic movement in early twentieth-century France that reacted against art for art's sake and sought its sources in the lived life around it--yet without returning to pseudo-scientific naturalism and without any attempt at overt "political significance." In fact, one could argue that, had Renoir felt more secure in his political beliefs, his films would have been the worse for it.
(14) Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films, trans. Norman Denny (New York: Atheneum, 1974), 169.
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|Title Annotation:||Jean Renoir|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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