La Regle Du Jeu (Jean Renoir) 1939 – BFI Blu Ray 2023.
Since 1952 Renoir’s La Regle Du Jeu has stood high in Sight and Sound’s poll of the greatest films of all time. It was only in 2022 that it slipped out of the top 10 to rest at number 13 – so there’s been a slight falling away of appreciation. After giving the film my 6th viewing, now in a 4k restoration, I did a quick check of the responses on IMDB. Many were 10 years old. And amongst the ones that deservedly called it a masterpiece were also a number of luke-warm reactions. Words like enjoyable but bewildering and overrated frequently came up. For the older IMDB contributors La Regle Du Jeu remained a great film. Yet young first timers were unsure of its intention and tone.
For me the dense and subtle moral complexity of La Regle Du Jeu seductively caresses then slaps you very hard. Its complexity runs parallel to a complicated storyline: a comedy of manners that’s pure cinema (the famous rabbit hunt sequence) and at the same time pure theatre (guests farcically running in and out of rooms). The French theatrical tradition of Feydeau, Musset and Beaumarchais (The Marriage of Figaro) is placed into a cinematic blender (deep focus photography, exhilarating tracking shots and overlapping sound design) to be lightly spiced with Mozartian direction.
Any complaint of ‘confusion’ surrounding La Regle Du Jeu falls away at each viewing (it really demands watching many times) as it deliberately doesn’t want you to have a full understanding. For the rules determining the behaviour of aristocrat, servant and interloper are constantly being questioned. This remarkable examination of the French upper-class, on the eve of WW2 is, political context to one side, a brilliant timeless observation of the irrationality of people battling through romantic intrigues. No one quite knows what they really want. And what they get is often not what they really expected. A lover is murdered. But the murderer’s excused. The marquis Robert (Marcel Dalio) shrugs his shoulders. And the game resumes.
Every time I revisit La Regle Du Jeu it always takes me about ten minutes to acclimatise to the experience. Ah yes, I begin to see that Renoir’s film is really about this; and why have I never consider that aspect? Satire, slapstick comedy, tragedy, class dissection, masquerade, lunatic opera, mad dance and witty philosophy are on parade in a very Gallic divertissement. Multiple superimpositions of meaning can be attributed to La Regle Du Jeu. As you grow older with this very old, but still emotionally very modern film, it shape-shifts before your eyes.
I’d forgotten how many guests attend that weekend house party in the chateau. We have some amazing comic routines. Octave (Jean Renoir) dressed in a bear outfit scampering, in a makeshift theatre, amidst ‘actors’ dressed in Austrian Tyrolean gear and then people in skeleton costumes performing a danse macabre. The camera pans towards a huge applauding audience. Renoir brings more and more people into the frame. The sheer physicality of moving bodies in La Regle Du Jeu and their orchestration is breathtaking. Through perfectly achieved tracking shots and long takes Renoir keeps switching from order to chaos and back to order again: the social rules are attacked, undermined, defended and reinstated. Especially so when the enraged housekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot), shotgun in hand, pursues the poacher, now shoe cleaning servant, Marceau (Julien Carette) through the rooms of the chateau; Marceau’s infidelity with Schumacher’s wife Lisette (Pauline Dubost) having been an innocent flirtation. This mad pursuit disrupts the guests in a manner that reminds me of not just theatrical farce and silent cinema chases but the powerful attack on social values in Bunuel’s 1930 L’Age d’Or. Not so much a crazed surrealist demolition but a dark anarchic thrust is shared by both films.
There is a way that all truly great films such as La Regle Du Jeu, Vertigo or Sanshu Dayu appear to mysteriously wipe themselves clean for you. So what you see, even on a sixth viewing, is new exciting and fresh. It’s not that you’ve forgotten all their memorable moments but on every encounter they feel subtly different and inexhaustibly rich.
Renoir directed many great films but nothing quite approaching the fluid depth and original vision of La Regle Du Jeu. I hope that when Sight and Sound conduct their next film poll in 2032 that it’s back in the top ten and not slipping further down. The momentous year of 1939 will then be almost a hundred years ago in our cultural memory but the moral irresponsibility of the house guests in La Regle Du Jeu will (must) keep us engaged, amused, appalled and constantly surprised.