By Kim Scott
Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) or La Règle du jeu is one of those films that often flies below the pop-culture radar, but for any ‘film buff’, it’s a must watch. I never fail to hear it mentioned in film class, either by my professor or by some astute film buff who boasts a full bookcase of the Criterion collection in the flesh. The Rules of the Game is widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces in the history of cinema, ranking among heavyweights such as Citizen Kane and Bicycle Thieves. Interestingly enough, the film was not recognized as such until about a decade after its initial release.
The Rules of the Game observes a weekend retreat to the country for a few members of pre-WWII France’s wealthy upper class. The film’s drama appears as a light, comical farce dealing with the varied relationships, trysts, and occasionally bizarre protocol of high society (hence the title, wink, wink). Yet as the film goes on, shame, embarrassment, even death hover dangerously close as the characters continue to revel in their fanciful and trivial charades.
The film’s style is incredible; I was constantly astounded by Renoir’s groundbreaking, filmic feats. Filled with beautiful, detailed scenes of deep focus, the audience is given a full scope of information from foreground to background. The sheer smoothness and weightlessness of the various tracking shots that carry scenes from room to room force me to step back from the plot and wonder, “… Just how did they do that?”
The plot serves as a harsh review of the nature of the absurdly rich, which is why, to the despair of Renoir, many Parisians despised the film enough to have the film banned in France after its premiere. The upper class comes off as ridiculous, flighty, and dishonest; I chuckled at the eye-rolls and scoffs of the mansion’s staff when one of the guests requests ‘sea salt‘ over regular salt. The rich operate in a world that has its own set of rules, where the concept of ‘doing the right thing’ and heroism are turned upside down.
The beginning of the film immediately dives into a fantastic moment that sets the stage for the rest of the film. The viewer is stationed as average person looking in on the life of an elusive celebrity, the aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain). Like the lofty upper class, André is not flawless due to his status, but has problems of his own, namely the puppy-eyed pursuit of love for the married aristocrat, Christine de la Cheyniest (Nora Gregor). This is only the start of the tangled web of lovers and unrequited love, but I’ll leave the rest as a surprise.
With characters involved in unrequited love with women, men who have mistresses and other miscellaneous romantic engagements, I always worry that the plot will solely revolve around men’s thoughts about women. Underdeveloped female characters in leading roles often fall into the tropes of the glowing, benevolent virgin or the tempting vamp/femme fatal. Yet The Rules of the Game smudges these lines. The audience comes to understand the feelings and desires of Christine and her husband’s mistress, Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély). Additionally, to my delight, the film fully passes The Bechdel Test. While the film has its share of questionable instances (i.e. Geneviève’s drunken hysterics and the character of Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Christine’s maid), but it certainly does well in establishing at least two well-rounded female characters.
The amount of detail provided in the images along with the multifaceted plot definitely calls for a second viewing in the near future. I suspect there are more hidden messages within the film that I have yet to decipher and I am more than eager to delve back into The Rules of the Game to figure them out.
Kim Scott is pursuing a BA in Film and Media Arts at Temple University. She has completed various studies on film analysis and film history with a focus on feminist theory. In her spare time, she can be found reading (anything and everything) or binge-watching TV series on Netflix.
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