Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
If you are fond of lists, you may have seen La Règle du Jeu (or The Rules of the Game) on several of those “best films of all time” lists. If you are not, let me be the one to tell you: it firmly belongs with the best films of all time.
The film is a satire, a comedy, around the follies of the haute bourgeoisie around the time it was made. But don’t let the fact that it is nominally a comedy fool you. The horror that would be World War II seems to loom just outside every frame, and the narrow-mindedness of the class portrayed would become complicit in bringing it about. In this ensemble piece we have the upper classes upstairs, and the serving classes downstairs, and all of them are after only one thing: love, actually. This diverse cast of characters, all with their own agenda, recuse themselves from Paris society to a country estate: Château de la a Colinière, where the players are free to dedicate themselves to this one pursuit. I will not go into each of the characters here: it is, as Roger Ebert notes, about a world, not a single protagonist or plot. And many of its joys spring from discovering and re-discovering the players’ surface motivations and their competing internal drives, as this dark farce moves inexorably forward.
The cinematography is notable for how the characters move in the space its director, Jean Renoir, creates through deep-focus photography. The later Citizen Kane, in which the characters also seem to move through real space, would become famous for this technique. Sometimes the action is in the foreground, or middle distance, and sometimes in the background. Watch how Renoir plays with this. In one comical dialogue a character looks directly into the camera in close-up: making the audience, peering up at him, complicit in the action that will follow. In another scene, an actual Danse Macabre, accentuating the theme of unnamed dread, the camera highlights the players in turn: as if on a stage. In yet another, a character runs his car into the shrubbery in a wide shot: so that we, the audience, are removed from what may be a half-hearted suicide attempt, or just a pitiful cry for attention. Characters and subplots develop in subtle, almost unnoticeable ways in the background, as the central action moves on in the foreground.
The pivotal sequence in La Règle du Jeu is of a hunt, where shots of wildlife hiding and fleeing are inter-cut rapidly with the barrage of gunfire aimed to kill them. This in stark contrast to the rest of the film in which scenes and shots are given time to breathe, almost languidly so. For this sequence alone it is worth seeing the film in its entirety, as a chilling precursor to what is to come, foreshadowing the end of the film and, gruesomely, events in the real world. It is incredibly visceral in its impact, and by itself elevates the film to another level.
When the film was released: audiences were disgusted. Possibly because they were loathe to see their society made fun of in this piercing way. Possibly because after the 1938 surrender of Czechoslovakia to Hitler for the sake of a dubious appeasement, they did not like to be reminded of imminent war and their future part in it. Consequently, the film was cut, and then cut again until Renoir’s original vision was unrecognisable and the film an abject failure. It was lovingly put back together in 1959 and restored to the sparkling 2004 edition by Criterion, which is the version discussed in this article. We, as a modern audience, are privy to a version even audiences upon the film’s release did not get to see.
In today’s world, as we risk a similar myopia, the film acquires an unexpected poignancy. The faux-sophisticated jadedness of its characters, their gentle cynicism, their rules. Like them, we may feel a cataclysm is looming just outside our view. While we, like they do, pretend to be blasé about the little things which give us joy, when time could be precious.
If the above is not enough to entice readers to gird their loins to see a French-language black-and-white satire from 1939, watch it because it makes the list of “best movies of all time”. Thanks to the scintillating restored edition, you will see: it unequivocally belongs there.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.