LA REGLE DE JEU (1939)

  • Director: Jean Renoir
  • Writers: Jean Renoir and Carl Koch
  • Starring: Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Marcel Dalio, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir, Mila Parely, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, and Anne Mayen
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#4), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#3)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV.

The first thing to understand about La Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game) is that it’s really two movies (at least) in one. The movie came out in France in 1939, only a couple of months before the actual start of World War II. Obviously, the war is never mentioned, but director Jean Renoir made very clear that it was his intention to comment on the way his country’s upper class was continuing blithely through their frivolous lives without making any attempt to stave off, or even prepare for, the coming storm. Asked what the message of his movie was, he replied, “We are dancing on a volcano.” The thing is, that’s entirely under the surface, with no mention of any escalating world tensions whatsoever. Instead, we get on the surface an upstairs/downstairs comedy of manners, perhaps the definitive version thereof. It’s interesting to realize that we have come to think of this kind of movie as a period piece, but Renoir meant it as just this side of a documentary. This is what rich people in this country are like right now, he’s saying, and that’s a problem.

La Regle de Jeu tells a complicated story of the entangled romantic relationships between several upper class 1930s French people. Everyone seems to be carrying on an affair with everyone else, which their actual spouses generally know about and are generally at least outwardly fine with, as long as they play by the unwritten but very stringent “rules.” They play out their dance against the backdrop of the chateau of the Marquis de La Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), who invites all his friends for a hunting party. The attendees include his Austrian wife (Nora Gregor), a Lindbergh-esque famous airline pilot, Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain), who in the movie’s opening scene touches down from a solo flight across the Atlantic and pouts live on the radio that his married lover hasn’t come to welcome him, the Marquis’ own sardonic mistress (Mila Parely), and Octave, everyone’s friend, whose clownish behavior masks deep insecurity. When the actor he’d cast pulled out, Renoir ended up playing Octave himself, in his first acting role. At the time, the performance was panned, and audiences (and Renoir’s producers) didn’t understand why Octave was in the movie. Today, many audience members may find him the most interesting thing in the movie.

Over the course of the movie, the “upstairs” drama gets mixed up with that of the servants, the gamekeeper (Gaston Modot), his gregarious wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost) (who, when forced at one point to choose between staying with her husband and “Madame,” chooses the latter without a moments hesitation), and a rakish poacher (Julien Carette) the Marquis hires as “a domestic” on a whim. When both start happening at the same time, there’s enough chaos for the Marquis (while doing his best to hold the kicking legs of a grown woman having a fit like a toddler) to yell at his butler, “Please put a stop this farce immediately!” To which the butler responds, “Which one?”

There are really only two characters in the movie that refuse to “play by the rules,” so to speak, Jurieux and the Gamekeeper. Both make the mistake of taking love too seriously, and it leads to their doom. This is a world where taking things seriously is the biggest sin possible. It’s fine to have a mistress, as long as you put up a pretense with your wife that you’re not “that” into her, and vice versa. The movie’s central set-piece hunting scene involves the rich people blasting indiscriminately away at rabbits and pheasants that are driven in front of their guns, the wholesale slaughter presaging the coming war. Renoir himself was a strong objector to animal cruelty, and refused to be on set as the sequence was filmed, leaving the job of directing these scenes to an assistant. This isn’t some sort of special effect; lots of animals were, in fact, harmed in the making of this movie.

Jean Renoir was the son of the great painter Pierre-August Renoir, and in fact appears, as a child, in many of Renoir’s best known paintings. He got the big budget he wanted for La Regle de Jeu because he was coming off a string of hits, including his World War I drama La Grande Illusion, the first foreign-language film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. But French audiences at the time hated this movie, to the point where the audience at the premiere literally tried to burn down the theater. They figured it was making fun of them, and to some degree it was. Or, as Renoir put it dramatically, “People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses.” He would have told you that was exactly what the French upper class were doing through their continued carefree ignorance in 1939. 

In a desperate effort to broaden the movie’s appeal, Renoir’s producers took the thing out of his hands and cut about 45 minutes out the movie. This cut was just as reviled, partly because the movie’s complex plot didn’t make any sense. The original negatives were then destroyed during the Allied bombing campaign, and it was thought that the full version of the movie was lost forever. In October 1939, after the War started in earnest, the movie was officially banned by the French government for, among other reasons, having an “undesirable influence on the young.” If that’s enough reason to ban a movie, I have a lot of other movies I can point the French government to. After the Nazis invaded, many of the cast and crew fled the country. Marcel Dalio, who plays the Marquis, was Jewish, barely escaped with his life, and lost the entirety of his extended family in the Holocaust. He appeared in much smaller roles in many American movies, including Casablanca. Renoir also fled to Hollywood during the war, where he directed a series of movies you haven’t heard of to little commercial success, before eventually returning to France. In 1956, film restorers found a series of extra negatives and sound mixes, from which they reconstructed most of the lost footage. This version debuted at the 1959 Venice Film Festival and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Today, if you took a poll of the greatest French films, this movie and Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis would likely finish first and second in one order or another.

In America, Citizen Kane is usually credited with popularizing the use of “deep focus” cinematography, keeping a long depth of field all in focus simultaneously, but if anything La Regle de Jeu makes more interesting and complex use of this technique. In many scenes, one set of characters appears in the foreground, then walks out of frame or into another room, only for another group of characters to appear in what had been in the background, still in focus. Renoir’s camera is constantly moving, seemingly floating the corridors of the chateau. Decades before the invention of the Steadicam, I honestly have no idea how they did some of the shots in this movie. The sound design is equally modern. While not quite going whole hog into overlapping dialogue, Renoir’s mix often puts a variety of noises or music in the background while someone is talking. It’s not something that was done much at the time.

If the plot, with a variety of characters from differing social backgrounds interacting on a country estate, seems familiar to modern viewers, it’s because this movie has been so influential on so many filmmakers. Robert Altman once said that he “learned the rules of the game from The Rules of the Game,” and, while its not quite a direct remake, his Gosford Park is basically this movie with some different background context and then a murder mystery thrown in the middle. Julian Fellowes, who wrote Gosford Park, then reworked a potential script for a TV spin-off of that movie into the hit series Downton Abbey. We can say, with more certainty than we usually have with these things, that without La Regle de Jeu we wouldn’t have whole subgenres that are popular today. 

For all of its cultural context, La Regle de Jeu wouldn’t be watched and enjoyed by nearly as many people today if it didn’t work extremely well on a basic movie level. There is a scene where the Marquis, who collects complicated mechanical contraptions, shows off his new, enormous “calliope” to a captive audience. As it toots and whistles, Dalio tells us everything we need to know with just his face. He’s proud, but also knows that this is pretty silly and realizes that he’s probably more proud than he should be, so he tries to hide how proud he is, but isn’t quite able to, and also doesn’t quite know what to do with his hands. Most of the movie feels like that, conveying complicated ideas and emotions very clearly. But it’s also really funny, like when Octave wears a bear outfit to a costume ball and then can’t get anyone to help him take it off. “I like you, but…” one guest mumbles, before wandering off. La Regle de Jeu is one of those movies, I think, that really rewards repeat viewings. This was my second watch, I liked it the first time, but this time I absolutely loved it.

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