La rÃ¨gle du jeu (1939)
Director: Jean Renoir
Cast: Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost
Synopsis: A bourgeois life in France at the onset of World War II, as the rich and their poor servants meet up at a French chateau.
Jean Renoir’s La regle du jeu is a movie that invariably finds its way onto critics’ top ten movie lists. It’s often pretty high, too. Number 2, perhaps, and looking over Citizen Kane’s shoulder. It’s also a film that divides opinion amongst its audience. Some find it over-rated, suggesting perhaps that it’s a victim of its exalted status amongst critics, while others rave about it. It’s certainly not a film for all tastes, and of all the classic films that regularly appear on those ubiquitous ‘Best’ lists, it’s probably the one that has aged the worst.
Steeped in the style of traditional French theatre, La regle du jeu can probably best be categorised as a social satire, which, as it was made in 1939, might explain just why it hasn’t aged well. Having said that, many of the points it makes regarding the rigid but unacknowledged rules of society are still relevant today. The story takes place in two locations: Paris and La Coliniere, the country estate of the louche Robert de la Chesnaye (the wonderful Marcel Dalio). Robert is married to the Austrian Christine (Nora Gregor), an emotionally naive woman with whom the heroic pilot Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) is infatuated. As the film opens, Andre has just completed a record-breaking flight, but he publicly confesses his disappointment that Christine hasn’t even bothered to show up for his arrival. He is greeted by his friend, Octave (Jean Renoir) who, after Andre half-heartedly attempts suicide by crashing his car into a tree, promises him he will arrange for him to see Christine again by arranging for him to attend a gathering at Robert’s estate.
Since before his marriage to Christine, Robert has been conducting an affair with Genevieve (Mila Parely), but he is so affected by his wife’s innocence in the face of Andre’s ardour that he decides to put an end to their relationship, and invites Genevieve to La Coliniere for a final farewell. As these various characters arrive at Robert’s country estate, we’re introduced to Schumacher, Robert’s gamekeeper, who also happens to be married to Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Christine’s adulterous maid who would rather serve her mistress in Paris than share her husband’s bed at La Coliniere. Shortly after Robert’s arrival, Schumacher apprehends the roguish poacher Marceau (Carette), but instead of prosecuting him, Robert offers him a job as a servant which Marceau readily accepts.
Thus the major characters are finally in place, and the romantic complications of the upper class are soon echoed by the behaviour of the servants, although in an altogether less discreet, more violent manner. Robert remains largely aloof, choosing to oversee the antics of his guests, while Marceau creates mayhem downstairs as he enthusiastically pursues the willing Lisette, much to the vexation of Schumacher. While the upper class guests implicitly reference the tacit rules of the film’s title, they each, to some degree choose to ignore them. Only the wretched Andre follows the rules as he pursues Christine, and ultimately he pays a price which is foreshadowed by the events of a brutal hunt in which all the guests are involved.
It’s not difficult to see why so many people come away from watching La regle du jeu for the first time with a profound sense of disappointment. The action seems chaotic at times, and the interplay between its characters is often farcical by today’s standards, particularly in a second half which is largely played out in real time. There’s no doubt that upon repeated viewing things take on a more identifiable shape, but it’s fair to say that it’s the technical side of Renoir’s filmmaking that has retained its impact and continues to influence modern filmmakers. His use of deep-focus cinematography (something he had utilised before on Boudu Saved from Drowning, nine years before praise was heaped upon Orson Welles for his use of it on Citizen Kane) allowed him to tell his story on two planes, with incidents in the background having almost as much importance as those in the foreground, and reflected the layered texture of the storyline. His fluid cinematography, in which the camera seems to play the part of a silent guest, apparently losing interest in some characters and allowing them to slide out of view only for them to reappear moments later, is also instrumental in defining their inter-relationship with one another.
(Reviewed 17th July 2012)