Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game

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The Rules of the Game is a 1939 French film about a decadent — and oddly endearing, at times — upper class on the verge of World War II. There is no intimation of the war to come, unlike Shaw’s Heartbreak House. But there is certainly a grimly blithe (blithely grim?) attack on “noble” society. A world away from the sensibilities dominating 1939 U.S. moviemaking.

The plot revolves around a number of love affairs among married nobility. Couples casually lie, cheat, and betray — but their transgressions seem borne less of love and passion than of boredom and happenstance. Three characters alone are truly passionate; their fates are grim: death, dishonor, and disillusionment, respectively. Because, you see, they forgot the rules: you’re not supposed to be in love or to really care; this is all a game of convenience and entitlement — take what you can where you can, but politely, discreetly, and moderately.

The truth of this position is revealed in the shocking, famous scene in the movie’s middle: the hunt. Here, the servants flush out the grouse and rabbits for the house guests to shoot at. They kill several helpless animals, scarcely moving a muscle except to idly chatter and quarrel. That they have killed interests them not at all; this was just the next thing to do, and now on to the subsequent amusement. And so they turn away, leaving others to pick up the spoils for display. It’s a quite powerful indictment.

I was surprised at how accessible — and fresh and even funny — this classic is. I must admit to approaching it with a bit of dread, afraid I wouldn’t understand much of it or appreciate it. And that was not the case at all. It is a most interesting and likable movie, and reading a little about it afterword I understood some of the techniques at work and its purpose. While I am in no position to say whether it is a “great” film (it is typically ranked near Citizen Kane on best films lists), I did like it a lot. And was reminded of Gosford Park, which I now know was influenced by it. It also recalled Les Liaisons Dangereuse as well as Gigi — think of all the times she is taught how the game of l’amour is to be played.

But I think what impressed me most about the movie was the fluid grace with which scenes played out. This had to be purposeful, because it was so very apparent (not forced, however). I have since read that the movie — like Citizen Kane — uses a technique called “deep focus,” in which there is no soft focus on the background while the foreground is in sharp focus. Rather, the focus throughout the field of vision is at the same level of intensity, making the background just as interesting as the foreground. I think that’s the need for the grace and fluidity Renoir invests here; otherwise, the background motion would be distracting. Instead, it is all choreographed like a ballet so that your eye always knows where and how to follow the movement. Quite fascinating!

See for example, the first two minutes of this clip. Watch how the movement flows from one character to another up and down the steps into and out of another room. Watch how this movement is triggered from fingertips to trays; from animate to inanimate objects. It’s mesmerizing.

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