Friday, July 6, 2012

The Rules of the Game (1939)

The Rules of the Game is the longest film I’ve ever seen. Not in duration, but in the dimensions of the spaces it depicts. Shot after deep-focus shot shows us figures rushing, fussing, and scurrying thirty feet in the distance—figures who matter just as much as those in the foreground, and who may, at any moment, make an impact just as great. And those tracking shots—director Jean Renoir following his actors as they traverse lengthy hallways in a fabulous mansion, other men and women appearing and disappearing through doorways and around corners all along the way—they’re remarkable.

We get a sense of a place, or time, that could go on forever. And of the immensity of the place itself; and of the puniness, by contrast, of the people who occupy it. The Rules of the Game is a comedy, but a mean one: zeroing in on a collection of men and women too rich, too idle, and too complacent to realize how little meaning their lives have, and suggesting, not so subtly, that the problem doesn’t begin and end with them. 

Is there anyone we can truly pity? We have Christine (Nora Gregor), the beautiful Viennese kept-wife, loved by several Frenchmen and content to lead each one of them on. And her husband, Robert (Marcel Dalio); a wealthy collector of automatons who waxes philosophic about his infidelities and his weakness, spending most of the film in a state of bemusement. André (Roland Toutain), a pilot, is in love with Christine, but he seems fuelled by the heat of the chase itself; Geneviève (Mila Parély), a socialite in love with Robert, acts similarly. Only Octave (Renoir) seems attuned to something like real feeling, though for most of the film we only suspect it, as we watch him bound through scenes, burying his pain beneath layers of sentiment and phony joie de vivre.

It is impossible, when watching The Rules of the Game, to forget the year it was released. We know now what Renoir obviously suspected: that a reality check was in store for easy-living, decadent gossips like these. It’s more chilling than funny to watch them lounging in a cluster behind hunting blinds, shotguns steadied, waiting for their servants to flush rabbits and pheasants from a thick of trees so they can gun them down. And later: sitting in a half-interested stupor while a jealous husband not only brandishes a pistol, but actually fires it at his wife’s lover, right in front of them. True suffering is simply odd to these people; they’re as unaccustomed to it as they are to hard work. It is just one more distraction.

The joke’s on them, but perhaps they know it. Each of them lives a life as prescribed in its goals and movements as Robert’s collection of automata—a fact that, if any of them realized it, would intrigue them; though only for a moment.

They are part of a machine, really. Picture one of those elaborate devices with the whistling music and the little doors that open on either side, and the little figures that travel a track between the doors; appearing and disappearing again and again so long as the machine keeps running—is there any distinction between the figures and the structure that contains them? Aren’t they all just pieces of it? Renoir’s deep focus shots, particular the interior ones, give us this same sense of small people travelling predetermined paths, blithe and insensate, as though they’re simply pieces of their space, rather than owners of it. 

The Rules of the Game was famously rejected when it was first released. People at the time didn’t get the joke, or didn’t wish to. I don’t think Renoir would face such a backlash today, though. Today we’re encouraged to gaze inward, then express our findings outward, and given multiple social media platforms upon which to do so. We may do it to vent, or accuse, or heal, or entertain, but we rarely do it for any great purpose. The people in this film would’ve loved Twitter.

Of course I’m guilty too. I’m a blogger and tweeter, after all. But I do it all for you, the reader. So indulge me this reminiscence. 

I remember sitting next to a picture window, years ago, in a Starbucks on the corner of Yonge and Wellesley Streets in Toronto, watching the traffic go by. The coffee shop was full. A car braked to a sudden stop outside, right in front of the window. Three police vehicles, all of them chasing the car, stopped too. The driver opened his door and ducked behind it, shielding himself from the cops. The cops opened their doors, ducked behind them, and unholstered their guns. Everyone waited. Inside the Starbucks, we crowded at the window to see what would happen next. 

After a minute or so, one of the cops left the street, entered the coffee shop, and ordered us to back away from the window. Of course he did. We knew there was a danger of somebody getting shot—why else would we have bothered to look? Yet it took his scolding for us to transfer that sense of danger from the people we were watching to our own persons. I wasn’t on Twitter back then, but if I had been, I’d have tweeted you all about it. Probably in real-time.

You’d do well to watch The Rules of the Game. Not just because it’s really good, but because, while it’s really old, it might still be about you, just as you are, just this very minute. I await your findings. 

Where to find The Rules of the Game:
The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) screens Friday, July 13, 2012, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox—part of the Summer in France programme.

The Rules of the Game is also available on DVD as part of The Criterion Collection.


  1. Great review Chris. I love this movie and thought the story of absolutely hysterical. I was also amazed to hear about how the print was actually considered lost during World War II. Thanks goodness they were able to find a print and restore it so beautifully. I hate to think that this movie came so close to being lost forever.

  2. Thanks Paul. Indeed, it would have been a great loss to cinema--just ask the Sight & Sound voters!

  3. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for French Old Wave Wednesday at

    Keep up the good work!