La Regle du Jeu



aka The Rules of the Game : France 1939 : Jean Renoir : 110 mins

Don’t be put off by Regle du Jeu‘s daunting rep as the masterpiece of French cinema. This is a very accessible, freewheeling kind of classic: at times it even feels almost light-weight and trivial. Almost – but not quite, as it’s clear there’s a lot more going on than just a boisterous weekend party in a country house (the latest examples of Regle‘s influence include Altman’s Gosford Park and Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow). Renoir’s film opens with a heroic aviator landing in Paris after flying the Atlantic, and the first words we hear are an over-excited radio-reporter telling us the exact time, emphasising that this is news, this is now – Renoir’s ‘now’ being the 1939 of a Europe trembling on the brink of war.

Whatever stubborn fragments of the ‘old’ world before the first World War will surely be swept away: this house party is the end of an era. Renoir nimbly deploys the classic elements of French farce – cuckolded husbands, shenanigans above and below stairs, the low comedy of costumes and pratfalls – while reminding us that such ‘innocent’ concerns will soon be relegated to the history books. As a venerable old soldier keeps repeating, “They’re a vanishing species.” The ‘endangered’ range from the hapless estate rabbits, massacred during the long hunting sequence at the centre of the film, to the aristocracy itself, and perhaps even the old idea of ‘heroes’ as represented by the faintly absurd aviator. What price such gallant but dated feats of endeavour, when nations and cultures poised on the eve of terrible conflict?

Renoir even questions the validity of cinema itself at such a time – at one point the medium is listed, along with all other art forms, in a list of ‘lies’. We’re never allowed to forget the artificiality of what we’re watching: the actors share the frame with the robotic birds and marionettes which the master of the house (Marcel Dalio) obsessively collects. The guests put on musical shows for their own amusement – in one virtuoso sequence the camera slowly pans from a player-piano eerily cranking out a tune, past the bored, idle piano “player” to a troupe of absurd skeletons enacting a syncopated dance-of-death on stage. Performance is all: even the hunting is done from behind ‘blinds’ which allow the shooters to observe their prey like theatregoers peering down from their boxes.

The various characters – the Marquis, his wife, the aviator, the groundsman, the factory-owner, etc – are just that, characters, enacting the roles life (and La Regle du Jeu) has assigned them. The main thing is to follow the rules – disobey the script and all hell can, and does, break loose. The film is thus as much choreographed as directed, with characters running in and out of rooms, up and down stairs, in and out of the house, and the camera a thrillingly active participant in the frenzy. Action is chaotic, quick, often surprisingly violent: an impromptu car-crash early on; the blood-spattered rabbit-hunt in the middle; a sudden death at the end.

It’s typical of Renoir that he himself appears as one of the main characters, Octave – a genial but slightly disconnected ‘fellow’ who spends a surprising amount of time running about in a bear suit. And he‘s supposed to be the one in charge of the whole shebang. But his self-deprecatory light touch is deceptive. While much of the contemporary political resonance has, so many decades on, gone slightly out of focus, Regle du Jeu remains an impressive example of film as art, with all the richness of a large-canvas painting or a sprawling historical novel, but specifically, emphatically, gloriously cinematic.

25th November, 2001
(seen Nov-11-01, Cineside, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
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