Tuesday, September 16, 2008

La Règle du jeu: The Official Haiku Review

This fall, I'm working my way down the Sight and Sound critics' poll of the top 10 films of all time. Earlier this month, I saw Battleship Potemkin, the silent classic that comes in at #7. I've already seen the films voted #1 and #2, Citizen Kane and Vertigo. So I proceeded to film #3, the 1939 French film La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), directed by Jean Renoir. (Yes, he was related to the Impressionist painter Renoir—his second son.) And here is my Official Haiku Review:

Lie and cheat? Fine, but
You can't hide in the background.
Tragic truths will out.

At first the film seems to be a comedy of manners, as a hunting party in the country reveals changing relationships between husbands, wives, and lovers. Yet the party ends in a tragedy, one that seems inevitable given the degree of cheating and lying taking place, both among the bourgeoisie and their servants. It seems to take a very French attitude towards infidelity—it's accepted, as long as you follow society's rules and do it with delicacy and "class." At first, the characters' contravention of the rules brings about farce, but then it ends in murder. When you contrast the long hunting scene (which is definitely not Humane Society approved) with the murder at the end, it seems clear that Renoir (who also wrote the script) is indicting a society that permits dishonesty as long as it wears a pretty face.

Renoir's use of long shots, allowing the viewer a glimpse of events in the background, reinforces his themes. Often while a character is speaking, behind him we see others contradict his words with their behavior. It was a novel technique for the time, and one reason the film is considered a classic. (Sight and Sound's directors' poll also includes it in their top 10.) But the film was a flop when it premiered in 1939. Renoir filmed The Rules of the Game as Europe was spiralling into war, so perhaps he shouldn't have been surprised that French audiences didn't want to see a satire of their values. They booed and threw things at the screen, and Renoir ended up cutting many scenes in an attempt to salvage the work. It didn't work, and he ended up fleeing the Nazi occupation a year later. It was only in 1959, while Renoir was living in Hollywood, that the film was restored to something close to his original intent.

I think this is one of those films that requires a second viewing to catch some of the technical tricks Renoir employed. I did find the ending tragic, a somewhat jarring contrast to the lighter tone of the beginning. It's an interesting film, enjoyable enough for a black-and-white work with subtitles. If you wanted to watch something very similar but much more accessible, I would recommend Robert Altman's very excellent 2001 film, Gosford Park.


  1. clear that Renoir (who also wrote the script) is indicting a society that permits dishonesty as long as it wears a pretty face.
    Already they were talking about Palin?????

  2. Sharon -- ha!

    Diane, the Renoir/Renoir connection never has occurred to me before. Duh.