The most uncomfortable films are those that denounce Society’s questionable choices.
These films say I know what you’re doing, and they’re not intended to make audiences feel good about themselves.
One such film is La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), released in France in the summer of 1939.
Director Jean Renoir shows us the world of the haute bourgeoisie (the French upper-middle class) on the eve of WWII. These rich, glamorous people have given themselves permission to behave in hurtful ways – as long as no one breaches their Code Of Conduct.
Marcel Dalio plays a Marquis who has been cheating on his wife during their entire marriage. Ah, but his wife (Nora Gregor) has a dalliance of her own, an aviator who is both childish and a national hero.
The film begins as Dalio and Gregor plan a trip to their lavish country estate. They invite friends and paramours, which involves romantic scheming and Close Calls with spouses.
The servants have their own intrigues, too. Gregor’s servant (Paulette Dubost), is unhappily married to the man who manages the estate, and she becomes attracted to an ambitious poacher. In this way, she mirrors Gregor, her boss. As Gregor is the Upstairs Queen, so Dubost is the Downstairs Queen.
Rich or poor, these are simple people who have no knowledge of, or compassion for, circumstances beyond their daily lives. Why should they? Just look at all this opulent deep focus space in which they can pursue their silliness.
La Règle du Jeu is beautifully filmed, so when the guests engage in a pheasant-and-rabbit hunt, the images are shocking.
Servants use sticks to beat against the trees in the woods, flushing the wildlife towards Dalio & Co., who shoot as many animals as possible. One man apologizes to another for shooting a pheasant he thought was in his own range.
These people may not be faithful to each other, but they are faithful to the Rules.
So when a man is shot and killed, Dalio calls it an accident, even though he knows it was murder. “The word ‘accident’ has taken on a new meaning,” says one guest. “No,” says his friend, referring to Dalio, “the man has class.”
Here, then, is another Rule: Putting a nice name on an ugly act deflects the truth and keeps our virtue intact.
La Règle du Jeu was released on July 7, 1939. Austria had already been annexed by Germany, and Czechoslovakia was under Nazi occupation. Now there were rumblings from the German/Polish border.
Despite wishes to the contrary, it was evident War was already marching across Europe. Indeed, Germany would invade Poland on September 1, and on September 3, both France and Great Britain would declare war.
With this film, director Renoir accuses France’s upper middle class of ignoring, or even sympathizing with, German Nazis. According to Criterion.com, “Renoir, anticipating war and deeply troubled by the mood he felt around him, thought he might best interpret that state of mind by creating a story in the spirit of French comic theater…”
The film was not well received at the première. “One patron lit a newspaper on fire and attempted to burn down the theater,” says the site Deep Focus. “Renoir left the theater in tears, ‘utterly dumbfounded’ by the unanimous reaction of disapproval. … By August, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs banned the film as ‘demoralizing’…”
In other words, it was a box office disaster, and an expensive one at that.
Later, after the war, a version of the film was pieced together from bits that somehow survived the warfare. When it shown at the 1958 Venice Film Festival, it found new appreciation; nay, reverence.
La Règle du Jeu has been called one of the greatest films ever made, and much has been written about it. (See Resources below.) If you haven’t seen it, we urge you to track down a restored version.
This post is part of the “NON-ENGLISH” LANGUAGE BLOGATHON hosted by Thoughts All Sorts.
The Rules of the Game: starring Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost. Directed by Jean Renoir. Written by Jean Renoir and Carl Koch. Nouvelles Éditions de Films, 1939, B&W, 110 mins.