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One of the most significant moments in the evolution of postwar cinema was the unveiling of a reconstructed version of Jean Renoir’s ‘lost’ masterpiece La Règle du jeu at the Venice Film Festival in 1959. Immediately fêted by the French critic-director iconoclasts who would become clustered under the textbook banner of the Nouvelle vague, yet belonging to their fathers’ generation, Renoir’s film seemed in 1959 to be a limit-case in classical form, a work which, film-historically and politically, looked back, while envisaging a new world of modernist aesthetics and anti-Establishment protest. Today, the experience of watching this masterful, though profoundly edgy film increasingly justifies the abundance of rhetoric that has been drafted in its name. In 1939 La Règle du jeu arguably remade film aesthetics, while taking French society itself to task. Appearing slightly under two years after Keith Reader’s 2010 monograph (IB Tauris), the British Film Institute Film Classic by Victor Perkins provides a fresh and invigorating perspective on a genuine masterpiece. Part of the team which edited the serious British film journal Movie in the 1960s, V.F. Perkins was responsible for setting up the film department at Warwick University in 1978, the first of its kind in the UK. His Film as Film (1972) remains a core text on film studies reading lists to this day, its sure grasp of mise-en-scène resonating in the author’s new book.
The difficulties faced by La Règle du jeu upon its initial release are already well-rehearsed, and have become indispensable to its aesthetic and political reputation. When it opened in Paris in July, 1939 the audience booed and hissed, even attempted to set fire to the cinema, and members of a right-wing faction threw ink on the screen. A devastated Renoir said afterwards, “They recognized themselves. People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses.” Too much for a France in political disarray and bracing itself for war, La Règle du jeu was cut by its distributor Gaumont and derided by critics on both Left and Right. In October the film was banned outright and in 1940 the invading Nazis declared it ‘Cinematic Enemy Number 1.’
In his cogent and thoughtful monograph, Victor Perkins spares us none of that initial disappointment: “Too many people who were there at the time […] left testimony that supports Renoir’s memory of a painful rejection. In its wake, further cuts were made as the director attempted to get rid of incidents that seemed particularly to rile the spectators, only to find that hostility erupted elsewhere in what remained. The picture shrank from the 113 minutes of its preview version to end up as a range of truncated prints of less than 90. The work of suppression was extended and apparently completed in 1942 by an Allied air raid that demolished the laboratories housing the negative. La Règle du jeu had become something beyond a film maudit” (pp. 8-9). Its glorious postwar career began around 1956 when diligent cinephiles restored the outtakes. It would subsequently appear on poll after annual poll as the greatest film ever made. In a famous tribute, Alain Resnais was effusive, La Règle du jeu remaining “the single most overwhelming experience I have ever had in the cinema.” In the 2012 Sight and Sound poll it still fell within the top five films of all time.
Talking with a journalist from the French fan magazine Pour Vous in 1939, Renoir spoke of “a precise description of the bourgeoisie of our time.” It is a telling ambition, for few films have ever had the nerve to dissect a society, discover its malaise, and dramatize the consequences of its apathy with such political acuity and aesthetic rigor, let alone fulfill this difficult mission with grace and imagination amid such a climate of social fracture and dissent. As Octave (played by Renoir himself), perhaps the closest the film comes to a moral conscience, observes, “The terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons.” Amid a century falling prey to political hubris and increasingly living out the consequences of Nietzsche’s ethical philosophy, the congeries of moral violence which Renoir sets before the audience speaks to our time of economic and political brinkmanship just as vividly as to a pre-war consensus sliding towards moral oblivion.
Whilst mapping most films onto social contexts can be a risky exercise, the tensions and allegiances of La Règle du jeu carry such resonances of the France from which the film emerged that a rehearsal of the political and economic climate seems not only inviting but inevitable. Facing stagnation and growing unrest following the onset of the Great Depression of 1929, successive French governments through the 1930s struggled to address the economic and social consequences of the slump while painfully aware of political fractures at home and the growing threat of fascist hegemony abroad. Responding to Stalin’s call for a unified response to fascism while France’s neighbor Nazi Germany armed and the Spanish Civil War raged over the southern border, on a wave of delirious optimism Léon Blum’s Popular Front election victory in May 1936 was seen as a genuine step forward for workers’ rights. A General Strike and factory occupations swept France. Initially, this attempt at a Left-leaning coalition of Socialists and centrist Radicals resulted in some important reforms, among them the adoption of a 40-hour working week, and two weeks’ paid holiday for all workers. The Popular Front also saw women in cabinet for the first time in French history. But the compromises attendant upon Blum’s attempt to remedy the deepening recession saw the optimism of May 1936 turn to bitter disappointment.
Friction between the Socialists and the Radicals amid a climate of grave economic hardship reflected the government’s inability to reconcile the conflicting demands of factory owners and workers, landowners and urban proletariat. Strikes proliferated. In June1936 the Matignon Accords saw an attempt at collective bargaining over wage levels which would further polarize Left and Right. Blum’s intervention to control cereal prices, his insistence that the Banque de France put the national interest above that of shareholders in the hope of breaking the power of France’s richest two hundred families, and the nationalization of the armaments industry angered those who feared overweening central legislation, as well as those who resented government meddling in financial affairs. Capital fled abroad, further weakening the economy and employers reneged on the Matignon arrangement. Further social tension ensued, and there was devaluation of the franc. Following the Senate’s refusal to endorse his emergency economic powers, Blum resigned in June 1937. Radicals gained control of the government, giving Prime Minister Edouard Daladier emergency powers to deal with strikes and to favor factory owners over workers. Meanwhile, growing activity amongst anarchists and fascists on the political fringes bore echoes of events elsewhere in Europe.
It is not difficult to see in the ‘upstairs-downstairs’ dynamics on the Le Chesnaye estate, the floundering will of the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), the peripatetic fortunes of the poacher Marceau (Julien Carette), and the strident resentful violence of the Alsatian gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot), reflections of the French socio-economic malaise of the mid-30s. In Renoir’s own oeuvre one has only to compare the sunny atmosphere of the petit-bourgeois family’s Sunday outing in Une Partie de campagne, released in 1936 amid the full tide of Popular Front optimism, with the darkening mood of La Règle du jeu, to witness a French status quo degenerating from delirium to disappointment. In a world so driven by macro tensions, Octave’s observation becomes a baleful wake-up call in the year which would see Europe plunged into war. As Perkins writes, “La Règle du jeu places us as witnesses to the spinning of tales and the telling of lies” (p. 71). However dolorous its historical genesis may be, Renoir puts before us an exercise in cultural and all-too-human illusion which is brilliant in its grace and assurance.
I first saw the film as a 19-year-old in 1979 during a BBC season celebrating Renoir’s achievement following his death in February. To me it seemed to be a libidinous romp through the amorous doings of a French provincial chateau, a Gallic imbroglio of sexual intrigues gliding upon fluent camerawork and Beaumarchaisian wit. Based upon Alfred de Musset’s 1833 comic play Les Caprices de Marianne, but inspired by Beaumarchais’ ancient régime comedy La Mariage de Figaro, Renoir’s film is characterized in the credits as a ‘divertissement’ with no pretensions to social comment. Meanwhile, for a spectator such as me, lately steeped in classical Hollywood, its late-30s provenance and its risqué wit seemed reminiscent of the suggestive Lubitschian tradition of 1930s romantic comedy. But such ambivalent frothy dialogue, visual discipline, libidinous glances, veil a historical analysis of such grave and powerful cogency as Hollywood never attempted. It is precisely this succinct marriage of dexterous telling imagery and shrewd ethical instinct which outraged contemporary audiences and critics.
To call La Règle du jeu one of the greatest political films of all time is, paradoxically, to pay lip service to its postwar cachet, yet to somehow reduce its power and urgency. Looking back over film history, we are confronted with a series of ‘political films’ and filmmakers with textbook reputations — Triumph of the Will, The Battle of Algiers, Z, All the President's Men, Riefenstahl, Pontecorvo, Costa-Gavras, Pakula, Loach, to pick at random — but these instances, great as they are each in its way, seem too much like advocates of a particular struggle, too partisan, too mired in the aspic of their historical and political moment. Whereas La Règle du jeu, while addressing peculiarly French inter-war class and racial tensions, also delineates with extraordinary clarity the interactions of envy and privilege, desire and enfranchisement, heroism and impotence, libido and position which wrack any human status quo in any era. Appearing as a summation of deep-seated French social disputes, its storm clouds brewing as the hunt sequence begins at the Chesnaye estate at La Colinière, and borne out by the ominous gunshot which kills the aviator hero Jurieux (Roland Toutain), Renoir’s film nevertheless speaks with terrible irony to our own time. One has only to witness the very public stand-offs between the people and the Establishment in various countries as our contemporary recession enters its fifth year, governments responding with the unexamined mantra of austerity with every turn, and the increasingly fractious point-scoring in the run-up to the 2012 US Presidential contest, to appreciate Renoir’s disquiet about modern democracy. As Perkins writes, “‘Ambivalence’ has to be a key term in any discussion of the film. I doubt too if any one phrase better evokes the instability of the complexity of tone in La Règle du jeu than Renoir’s remark in 1966 that he had based the film on the expression ‘dancing on a volcano’” (p. 21). If in 1939 there was no mention in Renoir’s film of the looming hostilities about to wrack Europe, nevertheless La Règle du jeu seems to ‘know’ something which its protagonists do not.
Long celebrated as a textbook example of the layered inclusive deep focus mise-en-scène of late-30s and early-40s commercial cinema — Renoir and his cinematographer Jean Bachelet ordered fast lenses especially to keep several planes in view — the film presents a rich tapestry of strained interactions as they unfold. One of the key strengths of Perkins’s film writing has always been his ability to evoke a particular film’s mise-en-scène with ease and imagination, that fluid concert of light, shadow and movement from which a film emerges as film. Divided into chapters revolving around the major characters of La Règle du jeu, Perkins envisages the mise-en-scène film-historically as a summation of classical continuity practice and a way of looking beyond classical form. In this passage, we get a sense of the director’s modernist visual intelligence: “The camera demands placement; each image declares its angle of vision. The availability of the cut means that the decisive moment occurs once every fraction of a second. Renoir uses deep focus and the scanning camera to strive against this condition, so presenting a peculiar awareness of it. A movie-maker, not a painter manqué, Renoir arranges the pattern of the shot rather than of the frame. Unbalanced composition makes the world refuse to sit too neatly, with seeming ease, within the format imposed upon it. The very partial understanding that the spyglass affords Christine is a warning against the limited vision that is the condition of a lens’s revelations” (p. 94). Elsewhere, Renoir leads the spectator to expect a certain adherence to conventional procedure, but then contravenes classical practice: “She [Christine] walks towards a door, has a moment of doubt, but makes up her mind to knock. Marceau watches as she goes in. The smooth, conventional cut would cross to the interior on Christine’s entry, but the camera stays with Marceau for some seconds — as if he needed watching as much as his mistress” (p. 69).
Whilst justifying his decision on thematic grounds, Renoir can be seen to exceed contemporary film-industrial protocol, whether French, British, or American. Much of the power of this film, it would seem, resides in its film-historical aptitude, even its (apparent) stylistic conventionality, a kind of dynamic transgressive academicism with which it renders formidable aesthetic and ethical results. If Keith Reader’s empirical ‘scanning’ approach to scenes dwells less upon individual characters than upon the historical and social allusiveness of dialogue and setting, Perkins’s character-driven approach remains true to Octave’s observation of atomic rationality, while being aware of the film’s essaying of a world of conflicting perspectives. As we may observe of our own world, such atomization seems in keeping with the film’s modernity: “We have gone from Mozart and Beaumarchais to a distinctly modern world of competing energies and of an ever-changing machinery of transport and communications. The airport, the radio, the live broadcast and the career woman are emblems of the up to date for 1939” (p. 24). As Perkins reminds us, the women in La Règle du jeu seem stranded in the ennui of their social positions and sexual dalliances. Only Lise Elina, the radio journalist who reports Jurieux’s arrival at Le Bourget at the beginning — Elina was an actual radio reporter with Radio-Cité at the time — would seem to fulfill the modern idea of the career girl, an emancipated figure so beloved of Hollywood comedies of the day. (We are reminded that, whilst three women took up posts in the Popular Front government in 1936, French women were not to be given the vote until 1944.) Much of the power of La Règle du jeu resides in its extreme aesthetic and historical vivacity, while, as Octave realizes, its Manichean human struggles will become a source of grave regret. Even Jurieux, a supposedly heroic figure who flew the Atlantic for the love of a woman, is rejected when Christine de la Chesnaye fails to meet him at his glorious touchdown at Le Bourget. In a world in which the rationalistic imperative of technology is already replacing individual hubris, Elina is obliged by Jurieux’s pathetic and, arguably passé, romantic disappointment to forgo attention-grabbing reportage with the victorious hero to go and interview the dull Caudron aircraft representative about the plane’s mechanics.
With hindsight, La Règle du jeu seems like a roll call of the great and the good in 1930s French cinema — Marcel Dalio, Roland Toutain, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, Paulette Dubost — and Perkins is very sensitive to performance style. There is a perceptive commentary on the mistress-servant dynamic between Nora Gregor’s Christine and her maid Lisette (Dubost), and a vivid description of Carette’s essaying of the little poacher Marceau. Yet what is striking about La Règle du jeu is that, despite this stellar cast, the film is nothing if not an ensemble work (an impression borne out by Renoir’s instruction to the actors that they read their lines as if reciting a telephone directory). Characters converse, interact, each performance stitched with word, gesture and camera into every other. Compare Renoir’s film with Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), a work which consciously fell under its influence, yet one that subscribes to a very Anglo-American propensity for each star to grandstand or deliver cameos rather than fit in. Consonant with the ensemble discipline of Renoir’s generational lament, as we close Perkins’s rigorous, intuitive, exacting and very proper tribute, in our mind’s eye shadowy figures pass across the walls of La Colinière, innocently resuming their stay following the death of the aviator hero, like us perhaps victims of history, ghosts without knowing it...
Richard Armstrong is the author of Billy Wilder (McFarland, 2000), Understanding Realism (British Film Institute, 2005), and co-authored the Rough Guide to Film (Penguin, 2007). His book Mourning Films: A Critical Study of Loss and Grieving in Cinema appeared from McFarland in 2012. He is currently teaching film on the modern languages program at the University of Cambridge.
Text Copyright © 2014 Richard Armstrong