How does one start to talk about a masterpiece like Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu? What can possibly be said which has not been said before and better? The answer probably lies, as with other masterpieces in discussing wiser people’s thoughts in the hopes of clarifying one’s own. A few notes are all that should be hoped for!I watched the film twice in reasonably close succession; it was of course as fresh, involving, moving, challenging on each viewing. Even a hundred repeated viewings would no doubt each bring in greater awareness, a better perception. This of course is true of other masterpieces of cinema and is no doubt in itself a cliche. Avoidance of cliche is impossible here.
I have no intention of summarising the plot which would reduce the film in an almost bathetic manner. Instead I will talk first about the documentary commentary which accompanied the film on the DVD I was watching this time; it was entitled Image par Image and was by Jean Douchet and Pierre Oscar Levy. La Regle du Jeu was shot in February 1939; Franco had taken Barcelona and crushed the Spanish Republic, Hitler had occupied Czechoslovakia. Renoir later wrote that he wanted to depict a ‘society dancing on the edge of a volcano’ ; he did this by creating what seems like a wry comedy in the French boulevard tradition, but is actually a portrait of a thoroughly rotten and corrupt ruling class. While characters may be individually charming, as a group they are useless. This is illustrated by the repeated use of pull-back shots – from close-up to general, from sympathetic to critical. The famed use of deep-focus (which may have influenced Welles according to Roger Eberts – see http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040229/REVIEWS08/402290302/1023) creates a sense of perspective as well as allowing Renoir to have action on many levels. What is the game? At one level it is that of love and desire; man, wife, lover, mistress. At another it is the Shooting Party and the rules of that game. At another it is the rules of French ruling-class society, aped ‘down-stairs’ by the servants. The film is a movement from comedy to tragedy. The documentary carefully analysed some of Renoir’s particular shots and camera placements. There is an energy which makes the viewer feel part of the action. Truffaut wrote…
‘Each spectator feels he is taking part in the film and sees Renoir being in charge of everything, including the screening. You feel like coming back tomorrow to see if things go any differently.’
And by playing Octave himself Renoir can appear on-screen personally directing the action, as he does in the crucial shot when he is standing beside Christine when she espies the Count and Genevieve kissing, through the eye-glass. The dominant camera movement of the film is the pan – which allows for breadth of shot; so there is depth (from the deep focus), breadth (from the pans) and speed from the energy of the actors. Sound is also critically important and nearly always comes from some on-screen object, often mechanical, which emphasises the artificiality of the passions involved.
The documentary calls attention to the fact that names are no accident. Renoir’s anger is displayed when he has Marceau, the poacher turned servant, declare to the Count ‘You tried to better me by making me a servant’. The documentary identifies Marceau partly with Figaro (and Beaumarchais is quoted) but also notes that Marceau was the name of a great Revolutionary General whom Renoir had included in his earlier La Marsellaise; a film which also included a La Chesnaye ancestor who was an ultra-Royalist. There is also the Austrian connection between Christine and Marie Antoinette. Renoir is determined to uphold the three revolutionary principles which he sees as being flaunted by the society of 1939, but in such a way as they are stripped of meaning; there is no true liberty, equality or fraternity here. Douchet and Levy identify Jurieux as an outsider who has to die because he flouts the rules by being genuine. His death parallels that of the rabbit (as has been commonly noted). Order is then restored. But the order is utterly hollow and it is shadows who return to the house in that astonishing final shot.
There certainly was a great deal of interest in the documentary but I was not sure that I wholly accepted all of its assertions. In a way there seems to be rather more regret for the passing of the dance, inappropriate and inauthentic as it is, than Douchet and Levy would allow.
It is fascinating that La Regle du Jeu was thoroughly disliked on its first appearance and subsequently banned after the Nazi occupation. Renoir was so hurt that he cut the film from 113 minutes to 80 shortly after its the premiere; fortunately however, unlike The Magnificent Ambersons, the cut footage was not destroyed and a new version of 106 minutes was made in 1959 (by which time it was universally acclaimed as a masterpiece) with Renoir’s approval. Of course that is still very short in many ways. It is interesting that Kane only clocks in at 119 minutes. So a couple of the greatest films ever made are both under two hours; although both feel so much more substantial because of the density of their making and subjects. One of Renoir’s aims in the film according to a 1954 interview with Truffaut and Rivette was to try and get away from naturalism completely. This is interesting because Douchet and Levy call attention to the documentary feel of both the opening and the shooting party sequence. One essay goes as far as to talk of ‘an almost neo-realist feel’ (http://filmsdefrance.com/FDF_La_regle_du_jeu_rev.html ) though this certainly goes too far in my view.
Ebert, in the article to which I have linked above, has a quite different reading of the film to Douchet/Oscar. The latter see the three outsiders as Jurieux, Oscar and Marceau, noting that the latter two never re-enter the house at the end, which would support their theory; for them the Count is the ultimate villain, the embodiment of the ruling class, pulling all the strings as he manipulates his mechanical toys. Ebert on the other hand sees Jurieux, Schumaker and the Count as the three different personalities; the former two taking passion seriously, the latter a geuinely honest and decent man. I think it would probably be hard to sustain this interpretation. A feminist view might on the other hand argue that Christine is at least as genuine (if confused) as the other characters and has a real grievance. It would be absurd to suggest that a film as complex as this is only capable of one interpretation. Apparently on the DVD Eberts was watching there is a conversation (filmed many years later) between Renoir and Dalio (who played the Count) on the steps of the chateau used discussing whether the film has a centre or a hero. Renoir apparently doubts that it has either.
As I say I reach no conclusions here; these are notes, a conversation with the film. Oh and yes I think it is a great masterpiece of cinema just in case I failed to make that clear!