One of the most interesting elements that is consistently featured in the historiography of The Rules of the Game is, indeed, the story of its coming to be. This essay will focus on the historical context behind The Rules of the Game, its makers, its detractors, and the captivating story behind its resurrection after twenty years in cinematic limbo.
Jean Renoir, like his father before him, was an artist. His father’s great work was Impressionist, “a way of seeing the city, the suburbs and the countryside as mirrors of the modernization that [he] perceived and wanted to record from [his] point of view.” At first, Impressionism was a spit-upon art movement, viewed pejoratively for its use of dots and short brushstrokes. But, the brushstrokes continued, pushing against the grain of established blends and waves that characterized the accepted style. These modernists focused on a new view of the real world, taking these quaint images and imbuing them with the cosmology of the reluctant progressive. The world was moving all around them, and they were focused on that movement, both lauding and decrying it. It was in the preservation of the rural idylls of simple living that this progressive, modern world would be allowed to thrive without sucking out our humanity.
The son’s work was, instead, poetic-realist. While this was a different movement, from a different generation, there exists a lot of similarity between the two styles. Like the Impressionist works of this father, Jean’s work was imbued with a bipolarity, manifesting the rapid growth of the modern progressivism, while glorifying the idyllic rapture of the countryside. His work was focused on movement and depth in the creation of a real-world image, stylized in accordance with the power of light as a communicative device. Instead of brushstrokes, his weapon was the moving camera and deep focus photography.
Indeed, the biggest difference between the Impressionism of Pierre-Auguste and the Poetic-Realism of Jean was in the media upon which these two movements were respectively based. The available technology enabling and empowering these media brought about pragmatic differences, which, in the hands of these artists, became artistic differences. In particular, there was a different focus on chiaroscuro and lighting. Richness in color became the central focus of Impressionism, perhaps best shown in Auguste’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette and Two Sisters. Richness of shadow, in contrast, became the central focus of Poetic-Realism.
Speaking of shadow, one wonders what it would be like growing up in the shadow of such a famous painter. Auguste did, like all Impressionists, struggle at first; but by the time of Jean’s birth, Auguste had been a successful—even famous—painter for well over a decade. One of my favorite Renoir pieces is a painting of Jean as an infant, maybe one year old, on the lap of his dark-haired nanny, Gabrielle Renard.
Jean’s infant face stayed with him throughout his life, that sort of elliptical roundness of his cheeks and deep-set placement of his eyes gave him a youthful joviality until the very end. There was a bounce to Jean’s demeanor, even in tragedy or criticism. I’m reminded of his introduction to The Rules of the Game that is included in modern releases, as he light-heartedly recounts the film’s stifling criticism when it was first released. Auguste’s rendering of his infant boy was faithful not only to his appearance, but also in showing the important union that the young child would enjoy with Ms. Renard throughout his youth and adolescence.
Renard was responsible for introducing Jean both to moving pictures and to the Guignol puppet shows in his home district of Montmarte in Paris. Here, she cultivated in him the love of artistic expression simultaneously devoid of falsity: “She taught me to see the face behind the mask and the fraud behind the flourishes,” he would later write. “She taught me to detest the cliché.”
Jean was brought up in the boarding school culture of southern France, a necessarily upper-class, privileged upbringing in a land still thriving in the pre-war Industrialized world. Jean’s father’s paintings provided him and his siblings a hearty lifestyle, and a cultured one, as one would probably guess where the breadwinner is a legendary artist. Undoubtedly, Jean was placed in a beautiful environment, particularly suitable for an aspiring filmmaker, where he was exposed to the idyllic and the industrialized, being at once educated and inspired, exposed to greatness cultivated from nothing.
The character of Jean Renoir required the incorporation of three more ingredients in order to develop its fullness and genius. First, was the squalor of war. Second, was a more profound connection to the genius and character of his visionary father. Third, was the stress of poverty.
Jean fought as a member of the French cavalry during World War I, the war that ended cavalries as we knew them. Jean Renoir was such a casualty, taking a bullet to the leg that ended his cavalry days and sent him to the air as a reconnaissance pilot. He would have a limp for the rest of his life.
It was while nursing this bullet wound that Jean was able to interview his father, finally getting to know him as a man as much as he got to know him as a parent. More than anything, Jean came to understand, not the technicalities of his father’s vision, but the power of a personal philosophy in the creation of art in an ever-changing culture. Even considering such films as The Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion, and The River, it is his book, Renoir, My Father, released in 1962, that remains one of his finest works.
Upon returning from the war, Renoir would fall in love with a woman name Catherine Hessling, a 17-year-old girl who, upon referral by Henri Matisse, was sent to Auguste Renoir to be a model for his paintings. Auguste would die in 1919, and, the following year, Jean and Catherine—the last model of the great Pierre-Auguste Renoir—were married. It was four years later, in 1924, when Jean began making films. Catherine starred in the majority of these films, and one film even bore her name, Catherine. Receiving funding for these films was difficult, particularly since none of them were money-makers. Jean’s entire filmography was profitless for six years, every film doing nothing more than building an oeuvre and talent-set that would hopefully pay off down the road. It was in and during this period that Jean would cultivate, not only a resume and skillset, but also the important experience of struggle that would breathe humanity into his masterpieces. Undoubtedly, he was developing a vision. But, as in all things, it came a price. For Jean, the price was his father’s paintings, which he, one by one, would sell away to fund his filmmaking.
Renoir would finally rise to success with a string of films that immediately associated him with the Popular Front, the left-wing movement that ran immediately counter to the rising tide of fascism in France. His films—such as one of my personal favorites, A Day in the Country—always manifested a beautiful romance, as well as a stunning use of the camera as an artistic medium; it was his political pieces, however, that stood out for the French population. In particular, two films would establish him as the perfect filmmaker for his rising generation: Boudu Saved from Drowning, which told the story of a vagrant and the middle-class family that tries to socialize him (a far more gorgeous version of Harry and the Hendersons), and The Crime of Monsieur Lange, which told the story of a writer of Westerns who lashes out against the manipulations of his employer, finding love along with his guilt. Both of these movies worked as sublime manifestations of Renoir’s new filmic movement: stories rampant with irony and poetic justice, politicized against a modern backdrop of industry and fascism, laced with concepts of romance and sex, which worked—as Pauline Kael put it—as “not only…lovely fable[s]…but [also] photographic record[s] of an earlier France.”
Jean Renoir was creating Poetic Realism, the signature genre of French cinema in the first half of the 20th century. His contemporaries, however, saw him primarily as a propagandist. No one was quite able to tell a political fable that was so bold yet so accessible. Soon, the Communist party was recruiting Renoir to make anti-Nazi films, a request to which he acquiesced. In particular, Renoir made the propaganda film Life Belongs to Us. But, it was his subtler films, striking at the heart of culturalism, fascism, war and industrialization while still providing great entertainment and beautiful art, that would really come to effect the French populace (and, for that matter, the rest of the world).
La Bête humaine told the story of a train conductor triggered to rage and jealousy, his bestial violence, like his own Mr. Hyde, functioning like the locomotives he drove. The man was played by Jean Gabin, who also played another industrialized man, who, like a broken cog in the machine, lashed out against the clockwork of his subjugating society in Le jour se léve. The Lower Depths, also starring Gabin, was an adaptation of a Gorky play, a comedy focused on class division and societal breakdown. La Marseillaise was a story of the French Revolution, invoking imagery of the liberté, égalité, fraternité that fascism and classism threatened to destroy.
There was also, of course, Grand Illusion. Truly Renoir’s masterpiece, at least up until that point, Grand Illusion was a massive success for this son of the great painter. It was Renoir at his directorial apex, demonstrating a mastery of the moving camera that would become the signature technique of his workmanship. Grand Illusion would put Renoir on the radar of worldwide film criticism, winning many awards, including the “Best Artistic Ensemble” award at the Venice Film Festival. Shortly after, the nation in which Venice sits, Italy, would ban the film. Germany did the same. Despite this, the American Academy nominated Grand Illusion for the Best Picture award, making it the first foreign-language film to merit such a distinction. (It lost, undeservedly, to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You).
It was after the immense success of La Bête humaine and Grand Illusion that Jean Renoir gained the financial power to be a complete auteur, in the vein of Orson Welles, within the studio system. This is just another element that can be fairly cited in a comparative analysis of Citizen Kane and The Rules of the Game: where Welles was given complete creative control of his picture in the form of a blank check from RKO Pictures, Renoir was given complete creative control of his picture in the form of an entire studio.
Renoir’s studio was called Nouvelle Édition Française, and was established in 1938 immediately after the success of Grand Illusion. In classic Popular Front style, the studio was brought to life by a coalition of proletarians: Jean, his brother Claude, André Zwobada, Oliver Billiou and Camille Francois. (Francois would become very important down the road, so don’t forget about him). Each contributed 10,000 francs, and additional contributions were made by Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Julien Duvivier, and René Clair.
Gabin, as it has already been well established, was the biggest movie star in France, and, likely, all of Europe. Simon was a great actress, who had worked alongside Renoir and Gabin in La Bête humaine, and who would go on to star in such films as The Devil and Daniel Webster as well as the Cat People series. Duvivier, by many measurements, was the first to introduce Poetic Realism into the mainstream, as the directorial mind behind the classic film Pepé le Moko. Clair was more of a comedic director, famous for musicals, but his fealty for Expressionism melded with realism is evident in his best film, Le million. Billiou was a screenwriter, who had worked with Renoir on his propaganda pictures, and who, like Clair, was deeply informed by the socio-political climate at the heart of French art culture, a socio-political climate that would form the entire thematic basis for The Rules of the Game.
Jean’s brother, Claude, was seven years his younger, and was a ceramic artist by trade, a style of art, actually, that Jean had rejected despite his father’s earlier pleadings to pursue it. Jean had another brother, Pierre, who would, in turn, name his son after uncle Claude. Claude the younger would become a great cinematographer under the tutelage of Boris Kaufman. Kaufman was best known for his work under Jean Vigo in all four of his films, including the masterpieces Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante, his work on Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor) and On the Waterfront (starring Marlon Brando), as well as his collaboration with his brother, Dziga Vertov, the genius behind Man With a Movie Camera. Claude the senior was, without doubt, an artistic advisor to Jean, but more than anything lent a financing hand to his work. He and Jean Jay are credited as the producers of The Rules of the Game.
The last helper in the creation of Nouvelle Édition Française was Marcel Pagnol. Pagnol was, at the time, considered the greatest director in French history, a man who started as a playwright and would later translate many of his plays to film. Pagnol sublet his studio on the Rue la Grange-Batelière to Renoir and Company for purposes of making their films. Were the studio to have survived for more than a year, Pagnol and Renoir would have entered into a more permanent contract for use of the studio, as well as for the procurement of a film theater specifically designed to premier films produced by Nouvelle Édition Française.
What was the purpose of this studio? Renoir had already made masterpieces of both art and profit with Grand Illusion and La Bête humaine. Clearly, he had no issue with allowing his artistic vision to thrive, and had no issue with making a living, throughout the 1930s under the studio systems where he had already worked. What Renoir really wanted was something like the American studio, United Artists. United Artists was a distribution company, established by its own proletarians (in spirit, not necessarily in reality), Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford. The whole point of United Artists was to distribute films made by independent artists. Its purpose was enabling. Perhaps informed by his early struggles in the industry that saw him selling off his father’s paintings for funding, Renoir was intent on creating a studio that could act as a conduit for artists to enter the mainstream, spread their voice, and make a living.
Jean’s father had undergone a similar situation a generation earlier. At first met with harsh backlash from the art community establishment, and pejoratively labeled “Impressionists” by the members of that community, Auguste and his friends got together and put together two Impressionist exhibits. These men, Claude Monet, Alfred Sissley, Camille Pissarro, and Renoir, continued to face rejection from Salon juries and the critical response to their initial exhibitions. In much the same way that his son would make a living doing what other people wanted (making propaganda pictures), Auguste would focus his efforts on commissioned portraits. This would spring him into financial success, bring legitimacy to his work, and make him famous at the Salon.
It was this mix of realism, entrepreneurship, and perseverance that Jean inherited from his father to bring to life the Nouvelle Édition Française film studio. It was also the camaraderie that inevitably seems to cultivate itself between upstart artists that brought the studio to life. Like many of his contemporaries, like Griffith, Hitchcock, and Vigo, Renoir had a “troupe,” as it were, that followed him from film to film. Gabin was at the heart of this troupe, Jean’s own version of Claude Monet. Also, there were other players, like Marcel Dalio and Julien Carette. There was cinematographer Jean Bachelete. Together, these artists would make, they hoped, the Nouvelle Édition Français film studio into their own version of Auguste’s first Impressionist exhibits. Only this time, the exhibition would be Poetic-Realist films.
That perseverance would prove a saving grace in Renoir’s entrepreneurial endeavor: after the immense backlash, censorship, and Lazarus-like internment in the tomb of lost cinema that would beset The Rules of the Game, Nouvelle Édition Française would meet its demise. The Rules of the Game was the first, and only, film that Nouvelle Édition Français would ever produce. It would go on to be the most expensive film, up to that point, in French history.
Shortly after the Nouvelle Édition Français film studio was leaving utero, France, Britain, and Germany entered into a pact, a pact that would mark the rapid decline of post-Versailles Europe as well as the demise of one Mr. Chamberlain in London. A treaty, signed in Munich, between the nations appeased, to an extent, German expansion by permitting its annexation of the”Sudetenland”region of Czechoslovakia. This was viewed throughout Europe, particularly by the Czechs, as an untimely, dangerous, and even immoral capitulation to German aggression, enabling what would later prove to be true: complete invasion of surrounding territories like Poland and, of course, France.
With the dragon of German stretching its wings just across the border, filmmakers like Renoir felt the impending threat of destruction. Whether that destruction would take the form of physical violence or politico-cultural upheaval was yet to be seen, but the turmoil was grasping the various European states by the collective throats.
Two forces seemed to be at work for Renoir, an immense amount of pessimism about the future of his generation, and the desire for comedy (“a happy dream”) to subdue that pessimism. These forces pushed him toward what he hoped would be the first of many projects at Nouvelle Édition Français: a comedy based on and inspired by the comedic theatrical works of Pierre de Marivaux, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais and Alred de Musset. As a matter of fact, in promoting and planning for the new film, Nouvelle Édition Français described the project as an adaptation of de Musset’s famous play, Les Caprices de Marriane.
It seemed, at first, that the desire to subdue his post-Munich pessimism through comedy was the prevailing force when the project first began. However, the pessimism could not be completely overcome, and eventually took over, dictating the evolution of the story from straight screwball comedy into a complex, multifaceted portmanteau of cinematic expression. Renoir was living on the edge of a knife, desperately reaching for happiness while precariously close to the cliff of despair. Likewise, society all around him was reaching a tipping point. The movie, which would come to be called Le regle de jeu, or The Rules of the Game, became the ultimate expression of this tipping point. “We are dancing on a volcano,” Renoir later said.
The evolution of this tale from comedy to drama to cinematic portmanteau traced both pragmatics and art, as so many great masterpieces do. Pragmatically, Renoir was forced to change the particulars of the story as its pre-production progressed. Perhaps the most telling example of these adjustments was in the casting of Nora Gregor, the wife of Prince Ernst Rudiger von Stahremburg of Austria. She was never supposed to play Christine, but Renoir was so smitten with her “birdlike” charm that she was hired anyway. All of a sudden, Renoir was able to incorporate another (artistic) symbol: her accent would separate her from the other characters in the film, creating a verbal barrier that further accentuated Christine’s isolation as a character.
As a matter of fact, much of the initial casting went completely unexpectedly for Renoir and his company of filmmakers. The original desire was to cast, basically, the members of Renoir’s troupe, including Jean Gabin. Virtually every actor committed to other projects, however (Gabin, for example, signed on to Le jour se léve). Adjustments were clearly needed.
The need for flexibility as the project moved forward was further accentuated by Renoir’s own incomplete work product. Renoir only completed about 1/3 of the entire script when filming began. Pragmatically, this was likely due to budgetary and time constraints. Artistically, however, the reasons for Renoir’s procrastination were real and significant. Said he, (famously, I might add): “In reality, I had this subject so much inside me, so profoundly within me, that I had written only the entrances and movements, to avoid mistakes about them. The sense of the characters and the action and, above all, the symbolic side of the film was something I had thought about for a long time. 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.”
As was highlighted earlier, the dramatic works of Marivaux, Beaumarchais and Musset heavily influenced the formulation of the script for The Rules of the Game. While the play Les Caprices de Marriane has historically been cited as the preeminent structural inspiration for the melodrama at the heart of The Rules of the Game, another play substantially influenced Renoir’s script, particularly from a comedic standpoint. Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro (also titled La Folle Journée, or “The Mad Day”) was hugely influential. Take, for example, a scene from Act I, when players—for fear of being caught alone with the betrothed Suzanne—hide behind chairs, drapes, etc. as, one by one, a new character enters the room. The scene is comical in a very oblique sense—almost slapstick; but in the thematic background lies this complex notion of isolation in love: as everyone fears the perception of being “found alone” with Suzanne, they fail to recognize that they are not alone at all. As a matter of fact, their acts are very much out in the open.
Similar sequences play out in Renoir’s world, and he used his camera to show this interconnectivity with profound visionary dexterity. (We’ll get to all of that later, though).
Renoir’s reliance on Le Mariage de Figaro is made clear right at the film’s outset. The opening titles include an excerpt from the play, setting the terms and themes of the film in action:
- Sensitive hearts, faithful hearts,
- Who shun love whither it does range,
- Cease to be so bitter:
- Is it a crime to change?
- If Cupid was given wings,
- Was it not to flitter?
To show this interconnected world, with its delicate dance on a volcano’s edge, Renoir relied on the melodramatic structure of Les Caprices de Marriane. In particular, Renoir relied on the four-player rubric of the comedic structure: the jealous husband, the faithful wife, the despairing lover, and the intervening friend. This four-person interplay was at the heart of Renoir’s film, but Renoir took it a step further. He duplicated the rubric (with a slight tweak—the faithful wife was changed to the flirtatious wife), and had the drama play out in two arenas: one “game” is played “upstairs,” among the haute bourgeoisie, the other “game” plays out “downstairs,” among the lower class. The interplay in these two groups moves forward concurrently, at parallels with one another, intersecting only at the film’s very end—the film’s profound tragedy.
(For more on French melodramatic character structures, you should check out my review of Le jour se léve).
With this class distinction at play, Renoir furthered the overarching theme of his entire oeuvre. He incorporated into the script even more class thematics and symbols, perhaps most specifically in the character of André Jurieux, played by Roland Toutain. Jurieux is the unwelcome newcomer into the upper-middle class; invited into the realms of its bourgeois complexities because of his newfound fame as an aviator. Here, Renoir incorporates his modernity: the aviator was the mythical hero of the 1930s Western World, and Charles Lindbergh was its Hercules. Jureiux’s inability to fit in with the world that he wants so profoundly to be a part of leads to his demise. Here, Renoir is showing the incompatibility of the modern world with the strict and hypocritical precepts of class rigidity, precepts that Renoir believed—at least in part—deserved the blame for the “hopeless situation of Europe in 1939” (quoting Alexander Sesonke). Sesonke also said that Renoir particularly believed that it was the “blindness and intransigence” of the haute bourgeoisie that was most at fault. Surely, Jurieux, invited for his fame, left his eyes just too wide open.
For those pieces of script and story that Renoir did prepare ahead of time, it is important to note two of the most powerful lines of the film. These lines set the stage for much of the action of the film. These lines will be important as we proceed through this essay series, and since we are currently discussing the film’s script, I feel this is probably the best place to introduce these lines:
“Love as it exists in society is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins;”
“The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”
Indeed, the reasons of the players are straightforward in Renoir’s story: the reason for all their actions are because, simply, they are “in love.” Renoir doesn’t work to define what love really is—while that is not one of the central themes of the film, you could still probably write an essay on what the film has to say about it (yet another example of the film’s profound depth). Really, love is assumed. The haute bourgeoisie is merely able to pursue that love, as it is able to pursue most any desire, with unfettered access. But can your pursuit of affection be truly unfettered? That scene in Le Mariage de Figaro would say differently, and The Rules of the Game seems to agree. Hence, the strength of the commentary, and hence, the tragedy.
As I mentioned above, the script adjusted as its players were determined. But who, exactly, were these players? And, who, exactly, is the film’s main character?
The “jealous husband” of the upper class is a man named Robert, Marquis de la Chesnaye. He is played by Marcel Dalio. Dalio was a mainstay of French Poetic Realism; he had his breakout in Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko and later worked as a member of Renoir’s troupe of actors in Grand Illusion. In Grand Illusion, Dalio played the Jewish fellow-prisoner who escaped from the castle fortress prison with Jean Gabin’s Maréchal. In that film, Dalio’s character was interesting middle-man: he was not an established member of the upper class, but was, in a way, a newcomer to the riches and prestige of that status—his family had ascended to wealth in the turmoil of turn-of-the-century France. In The Rules of the Game, the role of social middle-man—the stranger among the socially advanced—was played by Roland Toutain’s André Jurieux (discussed above). Dalio’s character, this time, would be the fully entrenched bourgeois Marquis, arrogant, creative, and socially involved. Robert is marked by a sort of dormant rage, masked by an inhibited grace under pressure. He finds joy in the mechanical, and this hobby-interest pervades the picture. In his interest in the mechanical, we find an additional symbol, one in which Renoir found great pride. Robert’s machinery function, perfectly, according to the Rules of the Game. Robert’s faith in the rules of bourgeois politics, and his mastery of status-wielding as a weapon of social progress, reflect themselves in his love of the wind-up machine.
Robert and André are bound, most directly, by Christine, played by the Austrian princess, Nora Gregor. Christine is an Austrian expatriate, one of the most desired women in her social circles, and is married to Robert. André, however, the bumbling and awkward rags-to-riches celebrity, is in love with her. The difference between Robert and André is manifested throughout the film. One plays by the Rules of the Game—even when he violates them, he observes them (this is the irony of the bourgeois, more on this later)—the other continually tries but fails. Christine, then, is the (mostly) loyal wife in the Les Caprices de Marriane-dynamic, and André is the desperate lover.
The jealous husband (Robert), the faithful wife (Christine), the despairing lover (André)… who, then, is the intervening friend? Enter Jean Renoir himself, the writer and director of the film. He plays Octave, the connection between all three, who at all times is the clown, the lover, the friend, the advocate, and the teacher. Octave is a master of society. He plays every part into which he is thrust with perfection. His attachments are sincere, but he always maintains a degree of detachment that keeps him above the fray. In the end, though, even he succumbs to the centripetal force of “love” in the bourgeois framework, and even he fails to fully understand how to follow (or even define) the Rules of the Game.
In the duplicative, Renoir’s script parallels the four-person love framework among the servants at the Chesnaye estate, La Colinière (where the action plays out).
The jealous husband among the servants is Schumacher, the gameskeeper of German descent who takes his pride in the lovable beauty of his cute wife and in capturing poachers treading upon La Colinière. Schumacher is played with an explosive passion by Gaston Modot, a French star in the mold of a Walter Brennan or a Claude Rains. He was famous most for his starring role in Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or, and for his supporting roles alongside Marcel Dalio and Jean Gabin in Pépé le Moko and Grand Illusion. He would later play in more masterpieces, like Renoir’s Elena and Her Men and Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise.
In contradistinction to the jealous husband upstairs, Schumacher’s jealousy is far more, shall we say, human. He succumbs with much more fervor to his jealousy and passions. Indeed, he is a lot like André: he just doesn’t know how to play by the Rules of the Game, but he really wants everyone else to play by the rules of morality. Indeed, it his inability to detach himself from good, bad, and proper that is the ultimate tipping point of the film’s plot.
Exactly what is the source of his rage? His (not so) faithful wife, Lisette, is Christine’s handmaid, and a flirtatious imp if there ever was one. (Renoir plays out her infatuations and flirtations with a vaudeville-like comedic flair). Lisette is played by Paulette Dubost, who was a relative no-name in French and world cinema at that point. She would later star in two Max Ophüls masterpieces, Le Plaisir and Lola Montés, as well as François Truffaut’s 1980 popular César-winner, The Last Metro (alongside Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve). Lisette is fooling around with the worst possible form of vermin in Schumacher’s view: a mischievous poacher named Marceau, one that Schumacher himself has caught on La Colinière.
Marceau, is played by the admittedly typecast vaudevillian, Julien Carette. He certainly is not a lover of the “despairing” variety, as per the Les Caprices de Marriane framework, like André among the masters upstairs. Marceau retains all the comedic, dance-like vitality of his actor, Carette, and is a far more confident form of lover. He plays the Rules of the Game by cheating (which is, it seems, ironically within the rules). His song-and-dance, cat-and-mouse routine with Lisette among the kitchens downstairs are some of the funniest sequences of the film, and Renoir puts a lot of faith in the physical acting of his players. Carette was in La Bête Humaine and Grand Illusion prior to starring in The Rules of the Game, and had made a name for himself as a great comedic actor.
But who is the intervening friend among the servants? There isn’t really one; but if you were forced to find one, it would be Octave. He befriends Marceau, particularly by movie’s end, and maintains, throughout the film, his profound position as intermediary. We see, certainly, that Renoir, by mostly removing the intervening friend, by fiddling with the loyalty of the wife, and by imbuing the lover with profound over-confidence, altered the four-person dynamic substantially insofar as the realm of servants was concerned.
There are other players outside of this dual-dynamic of the comedic melodrama. For example, there is Robert’s longtime mistress, Geneviève (played by Mila Parély, who would later star in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast). There is Ann Mayen’s turn as Jackie, Christine’s niece, who, like everyone else, it seems, is quite smitten with André.
The film was a masterpiece of comedy, drama, and social commentary. But, the world of 1939 would never be able to see it.
Consider all the characters, consider all of the interconnectivity, and consider all of the thematic elements that I have briefly discussed (and will discuss with much more detail later). Now imagine all of this in an 80-minute movie. In 80 minutes, the film was bound to fail. Consider also the degree to which it criticized so much of French society, and you now begin to understand just how poised for vitriol this movie was.
As a matter of fact, Rotten Tomatoes does not give The Rules of the Game a 100% rating (contemporaries like Citizen Kane, Wuthering Heights, Pépé le Moko, and Stagecoach have such a high mark). It actually has a 98% rating; there is one negative review. Why is there such a review? Well, and this goes to show how inaccurate Rotten Tomatoes is, the review is actually a contemporary one, from 1939, by Variety magazine. (I assume that this review factors into RT’s calculus because Variety still exists and its reviews still apply in the algorithm.) I think that it would be fun, here, to just copy-paste the review here. It’s not long:
La Regle du Jeu is one of those controversial pix bound to elicit much comment but definitely lacking in marquee strength. It’s advertised as a comic film ‘called upon to open new horizons for the French cinema, taking its inspiration from a new school.’
As an experiment it’s interesting, but Jean Renoir, who directs, wrote the scenario and dialog, and takes a leading role, has made a common error: he attempts to crowd too many ideas into 80 minutes of film fare, resulting in confusion. Also weak is Nora Gregor, the former Princess Starhemberg, whose accent is far from pleasing and her acting stilted.
Tale concerns transatlantic flyer Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain), who confesses to his buddy, Octave (Jean Renoir), that he’s frantically in love with the Marquise (Gregor). Whimsical Octave wants to see the love affair carried out to its denouement and arranges for a hunting party at the Marquis’ (Dalio) chateau.
Here begins a series of screwy situations. The Marquis discovers that he loves his wife and decides to give up his mistress, played by Mila Parely. But the latter has other ideas. Andre then attempts to rush the Marquise into running away with him. To complicate matters, Paulette Dubost, as the Marquise’s maid, and wife of the gamekeeper (Gaston Modot), carries on a high-powered flirtation with the Marquis’ valet (Carette). All of which continues into a dizzier whirl of infidelities.
Dalio, Carette, Toutain and Renoir are excellent. Modot is commendable. All minor roles are adequate. Photography is nifty and score pleasant.
As you can see, the original 80-minute version did not stick very well with an American audience. But, anyone who has seen the film today knows that it is not 80 minutes long, it is much closer to 2 hours. So, why is it that the original American audience had to see this short version?
Well, the original cut of the film, like so many expensive films throughout history, was far too long. (Even prior to production, the film was supposed to be the most expensive film in French history, as it was budgeted out at 2.5 million francs. By completion, however, it had cost over 5 million). The producers required the film be cut down, and by the end, Renoir had a 113-minute masterpiece.
Audiences across France were excited; there was a new Renoir masterpiece coming out, unfettered by budgets and studios and inspired by some of France’s favorite plays. There was even an interesting promotional strategy involving a Rules of the Game-themed crossword puzzle: solve the puzzle, you get free tickets to the show. All the promotional efforts aside, however, The Rules of the Game was doomed by poor anticipation and foresight.
Innocuously, the film was released, first, for award consideration. It did not win. Despite this, Renoir felt like he could have a big moneymaker on his hand, and the film was released to great anticipation on July 7, 1939. Perhaps due to negligence, the studio scheduled this first public screening of the film at the Colisée Theatre, in Paris, to a full house; in particular, a house packed with members of several French right-wing organizations who came to see the first film of the theater’s double feature. The audience despised the content and presentation of the film, and, according to some (including Renoir himself) started a riot in the theater reminiscent of The Rites of Spring.
This reaction went the late 1930s’ version of “viral,” and many reviewers were effected. One famous French film historian, named Claude Gauteur, did his own compilation of contemporary French reviews for the film, and concluded that one in three reviews were “unqualifiedly unfavorable.” Only one in three reviews were actually favorable to the film, and the remaining third was somewhere in the middle. Political reasons aside, Renoir himself had a telling observation: the film, it seemed, just “rubbed most people the wrong way.” The great François Truffaut would later speculate that, stylistically and in terms of narrative, the film just wasn’t something people were all that prepared for—an interesting observation considering Truffaut’s later contribution to the French New Wave.
The political reasons cannot be ignored, though. As World War II approached, Renoir’s public and well-known advocacy for socialism and pacifism was quite unwelcome, and, as long as the upper-class continued to “recognize themselves” in the flawed characters of The Rules of the Game (as Renoir put it), the film would not gain much traction.
Renoir’s personal apprehensions and insecurities played their part, too, though. Renoir immediately required scenes be cut; in particular, he demanded that any scene that had previously elicited the most negative response be cut. At the end of the day, he virtually cut every scene in which Octave was present. Those who have seen the film would be quite curious to see exactly how he was able to pull that off. By many measurements, Octave is the film’s most important character. Well, the simple answer is that Renoir didn’t pull it off. The movie was cut from 113 minutes to 100 to 95 to 85 to 8o minutes, Renoir’s disappointment in the response to the film guiding the movie deeper and deeper into an oblivion.
Which, of course, takes us back to that Variety magazine review in 1939. By the time the film left France, it was a fraction of its former self: the profound satire, the intricacies of the plot, several important characters, and some of the most important thematic and cinematographic constructions (including the famous danse macabre) were all absent. What did remain was packed into an incoherent 80-minute jumble. The film was dead in the water, and would never be the same again…at least, it seemed that way, particularly after the Allied forces bombed the G.M. Film Lab at Boulogne-sur-Seine, where the original prints of the film laid in storage. For all intents and purposes, the film, as Jean Renoir would have wanted us to see it, was dead, body and spirit, cremated in the rubble of war somewhere along the Seine.
Forces were at work, though; making me believe more and more in the providential hand of art and its power to survive even the most complete of deaths. Remember, there were some lovers of the film. Could there be more?
In 1946, a new print was made of a found version of the 85-minute version. This restored version was cleaner, and the additional 5 minutes were important. Soon, the film, riding the waves of its maker’s reputation, was playing in the mid-century’s equivalent of arthouses around the western hemisphere, premiering in New York City in 1850. (To negative reviews again…reviews that interestingly are not factored into Rotten Tomatoes’ calculus). The Americans might not have caught on, but the Europeans must have: in 1952, the film was placed in Britain’s Sight & Sound magazine’s inaugural top-ten poll. Ever since then, a spot has been reserved for it in the top ten. It seems that, by the early ’50s, there were more lovers of the movie. Could there yet be more?
Often, it is through the action of true believers that the unbelievers are brought into the fold. In film, it is through the competent film connoisseurs that the casual movie-goers have their eyes opened. The competent film connoisseursa responsible for truly resuscitating the dead, original film were men named Jean Gabarit and Jacques Marechal, a couple of lab technicians.. They founded Societe des Grands Films, a restoration company that worked to rehabilitate neglected or damaged classic movies, in 1956. They wanted to bring The Rules of the Game back to life, to its original 113-minute version. But, the lab where the originals were kept had been destroyed. Enter Camille Francois.
Francois had been a founding member of Nouvelle Édition Française (remember him from about 5100 words ago?). Gabarit and Marechal approached Francois and, after Francois sold the rights to the film to them, the three began searching. As it turned out, the G.M. Film Lab was destroyed, but American forces had recovered large amounts (about 225 boxes worth) of finished reels and sound mixes from its rubble. Under advisement from the master, Jean Renoir himself (who, at the time, was back in France after a decade abroad, in the middle of making his resplendent “Trilogy of Spectacle”), Gabarit and Marechal pieced back together a restoration of The Rules of the Game. By the time they were finished, 30 of the 33 missing minutes of the film were reincorporated, the only scene missing was one in which Octave and André discuss the infidelity of maids, a scene that Renoir himself said was mostly superfluous.
The film would go on to play in Venice, in this completed form, in 1959. It may just be coincidence (though I don’t buy it) that this was the same year that François Truffaut would release The 400 Blows. It is even less of a coincidence that, in 1960, Jean-Luc Godard made Breathless, Claude Chabrol made Les Bonnes Femmes, Éric Rohmer made Sign of Leo and Jacques Demy made Lola. All of these directors, particular Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer, would cite The Rules of the Game as one their most profound influences. I personally believe that, were it not for the Resurrection of Renoir’s greatest masterpiece, the French New Wave and all its profound influence on cinema, both independent and commercial, never would have fully taken hold as a cinematic movement.
The influenced go far beyond New Wave directors of the 1960s. Clearly the New Hollywood generation, influenced in turn by the New Wave, were at the very least indirectly impacted by Renoir’s comedy of errors (though the degree of direct influence is, actually, very significant). Certainly, we see that in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, and even in George Lucas’ American Graffiti. What about Woody Allen, in films like Hannah and Her Sisters or Small-Time Crooks (his most underrated comedy)? What about Luis Buñuel, in films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or The Exterminating Angel; or Ingmar Bergman in Smiles of a Summer Night? Clearly, these directors were effected by the themes of class and poshlost (look it up) that took center stage in The Rules of the Game. Perhaps more important than narrative, it was the visual style that brought the movie into the upper echelons of greatness. Said Bazin, “[A]s a conventional love story, the film could have been a success if the scenario had respected the rules of the movie game. But Renoir wanted to make his own style of drame gai.” Film commentator Brian Eggert discussed the influence of this style on Robert Altman, who famously quipped that “I learned the rules of the game from The Rules of the Game.”
“This avowal,” wrote Eggert, “becomes most apparent in Altman’s work, often based on the notion of tracking several characters in an involved mosaic, such as Nashville (1975) or Short Cuts (1993), or his exercises in deep focus such as The Player (1992). Altman’s influence is most apparent in Gosford Park (2001), almost a modern remake of Renoir’s film, but more somber and set on the English countryside.”
The film has gone on to touch an astounding number of critics and directors, from Orson Welles decades ago to Martin Scorsese today. It has historically crept up the Sight & Sound poll’s list of the greatest movies of all time, and continues to be considered by many as the greatest film of all time. Surely, its history only further contributes to this title; the almost divine path that it took from birth to death to resurrection creates an aura that makes all those deep focus images, precise storytelling, and developed themes all that clearer. Renoir’s growth in the shadow of the world’s greatest Impressionist like a foreordination, enduing its maker with a taste for artistic expression in a world further darkened by violence and fear, and his later ascendance to fame and fortune enabled him to make a film that was a perfect satire, a perfect commentary, and a perfect dance.