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The Rules of the Game (1939); And it’s Inferiority as a Classic

March 4, 2015

the-rules-of-the-game-poster In 1939, Jean Renoir was French cinema’s golden child. With three majorly adored films under his belt, French movie goers waited with bated breath for the release of his next venture, The Rules of the Game. Film critics and journalists reported on the film’s progress during production, and Renoir basked in the glory. As production ran over its expected course, the costs of the film went up making it the most expensive film ever produced in France at the time. But, in a strange turn of events audiences hated what they saw upon the film’s release. The Rules of the Game was met with harsh criticism and furious reactions. Its premiere resulted in boos from the audience and fistfights within the crowd. An audience member was reportedly so angry that he tried to set fire to the screen!

The Rules of the Game went on to become Renoir’s biggest financial and critical disaster. France hardened the blow by banning the film deeming it “immoral” and blaming it for having an “undesirable influence over the young.” The Rules of the Game got swept under the rug, burned during Nazi occupation and went almost forgotten for nearly 20 years before it was rediscovered and reintroduced to the masses immediately becoming universally beloved and respected topping “best of” movie lists across the globe. However, I side with the initial reactions from French audiences and critics alike. While I would not have attempted to make a martyr of Renoir’s attempt at farce upon its release, I would have been front and center along with them booing loudly and throwing any object available at the screen.

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For most cinephiles, The Rules of the Games is a legendary relic. It’s one that I’ve known of since my first year as a film school undergrad. At the time, my devotion to film was being sculpted by a gorgeous specimen of a professor; tall, slender, a strong jaw line and a flowing mane of auburn hair. I fell into blissful intrigue with film history that year as I realized how influential and impressive its techniques were and still are. Out of the sultry mouth of this PILF was the first time I had ever heard of Jean Renoir or his cinematic feats and I knew I had to experience it for myself.

Years passed before I would watch the film that made my early film professor glow. Hulu’s adoption of the entire Criterion Collection finally placed The Rules of the Game safe and soundly into my queue. But, much like an ancient relic, it sat idlely gathering dust for some time before I could stop to watch it. Alas, this magical film that had been called one of the greatest films ever made was finally a sight to behold for my eyes. What I did not expect was for it to take me well over 24 hours to finish watching it in between falling asleep in parts and getting so bored that I began to look for excuses to pause it and leave the room.

The Rules of the Games is heralded for its brilliant filming techniques. Renoir famously treated the camera as if it were another character able to move with fluid poise and grace. There are shots that call to mind the possible influence on recent Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. However, when compared to the camera mastery and editing techniques of F. W. Murnau or King Vidor years prior, and even Orson Wells’ own advacements and perfection of the very same techniques Renoir used a mere year later, makes it hard to find awe in the few scenes of sharp mise-en-scene and camera movement in The Rules of the Game.

But I digress, judging this film strictly within the time period it derives from proves to be a difficult task for someone almost 80 years later. So maybe Renoir’s visual style is something impressive and commendable in the grand scheme of film history. Its his storytelling that most certainly is neither. The Rules of the Game is one of the more convoluted stories I’ve had to endure.

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When famed aviator Andre Jurieux returns from a trip around the world, fans and press are there to celebrate his achievement. But, Andre only wants to see Christine, the Austrian born wife of a French nobleman, Robert. Though married to Robert for three years, Christine and Andre have been involved in a passionate affair for two, an affair that she attempts to break when Andre reveals to the press he only flew for the love of a woman. Robert, on the other hand, has been involved in an affair with his own mistress, Genevieve, who he is also trying to break up with for the love of Christine. Everyone in the couple’s upper class inner circle is aware of the “game” or set of affairs, including Christine’s maid Lisette, who is blissfully involved in her own affairs, and Octave, a mutual friend of everyone and Christine’s confident. These affairs are the driving force of the film’s drama and situational hijinks becoming an endless barrage of characters cheating on one another with each other. It’s “The Real World” in classic movie form except none of the characters get drunk and naked in a hot tub to make it worth the watch.

While Renoir pushed for some fabulous performances (his own as Octave is the most memorable), his desire to let his actors improvise much of their conversation is likely the reason the script is as bland and confusing as it is. I found it difficult to follow along in the story mostly because everyone gets intertwined in a web of lies and thinly professed love. Devout lovers prove their romanticisms by sleeping with another behind their lover’s back. And, though the characters are presented sympathetically, their conversations are monotonous and bland lacking any true substance or intrigue. Their discussions revolve around their wealth, class and paper-thin love for another. Though some, like Lisette, are unempathetic to those devoted to them, the others are openly bored and confused by their love of others.

25 The Rules of The Game (1939, Jean Renoir)

Renior wrote The Rules of the Game as a scathing critique of the French upper class whom he saw as immoral in their affiars and ignorant to the changing climate of the oncoming travesties of World War II and Nazism. Yet, war is a backdrop that is never even spoken of except in the film’s opening prologue. While Renoir’s annoyances with these behaviors are justifiable, his attempted battle feels moot and could have been better spent focusing on a much more general, less subjective topic. The film lacks the humanizing quality it needs for audiences to truly care and see his story as a realistic issue. But, it also lacks strength in even making a point amidst a much stronger, more serious topic at hand. With that, Renoir limits the sin of callous cheating to the bourgeoisie as though lower classes were too humble for that type of corruption. Renoir had his reasons to make this I’m sure, but I just couldn’t find them decades later on screen.

Though The Rules of the Game has found a resurgence and near unanimous praise throughout the generations from film fans, I side with the patrons who watched it when it was released. Whether their blustering outrage was a result of Renoir’s personal critique of their lifestyle or his cinematic execution is an argument that is neither here, nor there. But, I believe the early audiences saw The Rules of the Game for what it really is, puffed up junk.

AVOID IT. I’m starting to wonder if screwball comedies just aren’t my thing.

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