La règle du jeu thrives on a culmination of all that the cinema had developed by 1939. The acting was first-rate, emotional and restrained, characters were individual and yet universal. The camera was now able to effortlessly glide from room to room, down corridors and mingling between people—we feel sometimes as if we are guests at the château location, simply happening upon the incidents shown. Editing was controlled, heightened only when necessary. And lighting reached a point of outstanding impact, adding to Renoir’s exceptional and influential use of depth of field.
A great instance of Renior’s superb ability to control a scene, to envision an ultimate design, comes near the end as, beginning first in one room, Lisette is trying to stop Schumacher from going after Marceau. Next, the camera follows them through a doorway, then to another room. They remain struggling stationary, the camera pulls back, racks focus, and then, quickly from frame right, Robert and André come bursting in, also fighting. It’s just a fantastic example of Renoir’s keen use of the long take, the mobile camera, and deep space. Many of his scenes, shot frequently down halls and through doorways, are also arranged in depth so that, within a single area, the camera is across the room while the action takes place at the far, other end. Early on we see this quite well as Octave is convincing Robert to invite André. The camera is placed away from the action, on the distant side of the room, and so in between we’ve got this frame of empty space, only irregularly filled with furniture and decoration; but aside from all of these material possessions, the room, like most of the characters, is empty. It’s additionally important to note the lack of close-ups in the film. They are few and far between and I’ve always looked at this as Renoir, while no doubt presenting some engaging characters, also wanting us to keep our emotions in check, to not connect too much with these petty bourgeois individuals.
Renoir with this film also presents some remarkable physical comedy, clearly harkening back to one of his biggest idols, Chaplin. Look at Octave, the way he bumbles about (in a bear costume no less!) and Marceau, crawling around on the floor under tables, getting chased by Schumacher—it’s just great stuff. The dialogue too is chock full of some great lines:
Robert: “Corneille put an end to this farce.”
Corneille: “Which one?”
That sort of says it all.
Or, there’s the scene where Geneviève and Christine discuss Robert’s infidelities, which rather quickly turns to talk regarding evening wear. It’s a very smooth path Renoir takes to a cynical comedy. I also love the scene in the kitchen when the peanut gallery of cooks and servants mock the diets and indiscretions of the guests; little do they know at that point, however, just how close they are to be intertwined with them.
This brings me to the questions of the rules of this game. What are they? What is the game? To me, this game is obviously a frivolous one, one with clearly two sides (classes), a game that is based on manners and socioeconomic regulations (Speaking of Christine, “She is a society woman,” says Octave, “and society has strict rules”). But who can win? Can anyone win? Both sides seem incapable of separating themselves enough from the ideas or behaviors of their governing group to make a clear break. The upper class, especially, is so contained, so locked within their own world, that they are incapable of division. Take Christine. Only at the very end does she break from her class to accept Octave as her true love. But what does he do? He gives her up. They are both back to where they started. They are stuck. They don’t act progressively; they act out in other ways. Look at the film’s two main activities: a show, a masquerade (lest they have to face reality) and a hunt (a way of expressing the violence that they suppress, with innocence as the victim).
Renoir, perhaps particularly with this film, reminds me a lot of Jacques Tati. Both filmmakers, notably both French, were masters at being tender critics. They were pointed to human foibles and faults, to odd and irrational behavior, but they never belittled nor scathingly chastised. They took what life offered, for better or worse, presented it, and let it go, often with a smile, a sigh, and a “C'est la vie.” Even in his war-related films (La marseillaise, Le caporal épinglé, and of course La grande illusion are three good ones) Renoir presents many of the characters and their actions with a cultivated and sensitive fashion. The great and telling quote from La règle du jeu, crucially uttered by Renoir’s own Octave, says it perfectly: “Everybody has their reasons.” Even a nuisance like Boudu in Boudu sauvé des eaux is shown not totally void of sympathy. Renoir intended La règle du jeu to be, “A pleasant movie that would at the same time function as a critique of a society I condemned rotten to the core.” And certainly this comes across, but yet, as Renoir also noted, “The portrait of this society makes us love it … because this society has at least one advantage: It wears no masks.” The film is in many ways too clever to be nastily abrasive. While there is, to be sure, a clear agenda with this film, it doesn’t approach any sort of viciousness, most of Renoir’s work never does (La chienne, as the translation of the title sort of suggests, can be occasionally and frankly unpleasant, but even it has considerable comedy). But in the end, La règle du jeu is, as Amy Taubin writes, a “social satire that is devoid of cynicism and its companion, sentimentality, and that evokes compassion rather than contempt.”
No less a filmmaker than Orson Welles called Renoir the “best director ever,” and Bernardo Bertolucci quite rightly remarked that Renoir’s films are “So close to life [yet] completely cinema.” Renoir is a great storyteller and a great creator of ingenious characters (“[I am] trying to discover human beings,” he once said), and at the same time his cinema is so totally enamored with the art form itself. Renoir’s films are the absolute most brilliant combination of pure narrative and technical virtuosity.