La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game)

The Rules of Criterion

by Peter Rist Volume 8, Issue 6 / June 2004 12 minutes (2955 words)

La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), Jean Renoir (France) 1939/1959

A special edition, double disc DVD set, #216, published by The Criterion Collection, 2004

I first saw Jean Renoir’s_La règle du jeu_ on the very first film course I registered for at Concordia University in the Summer of 1976. The course was “Film History” taught by a visiting professor from Harvard, Vlada Petric, and his enthusiasm for the film was unbounded. Of the films shown on the course with which I was unfamiliar, La règle du jeu and Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible made by far and away the biggest impression on me, and Renoir joined Eisenstein as being one of the two most inspirational directors in my entry into film studies. (Eisenstein’s shift from engineer to filmmaker/theorist loomed large in my own giving up mechanical engineering for cinema.)

At the time of its premiere on July 7, 1939, at La Colisée, in the “most elegant and expensive district in Paris” (according to a new interview with Renoir’s son Alain, conducted for the DVD), the film was reviled as being demoralising and anti-patriotic. Even before this screening, Renoir was asked by Jean Jay of Gaumont, the theatre owners, to make some cuts to his 113 minute version. Accounts vary on the actual length of the premier version from 112 to 90 mins., although the most likely running time would seem to be 94 mins.* Within days, it was then cut again down by Renoir to an 81 minute running time for the remainder of its theatrical release, but, in this version it was no more successful with the public. The run at La Colisée lasted all of three weeks, and, according to Christopher Faulkner’s video essay on the DVD, disc two, La règle du jeu was later banned for the duration of the war as a demoralising film, along with 57 other films, leading to the bankruptcy and dissolution Renoir’s production company, Nouvelles Editions Française (NEF). In 1942 the original negative was destroyed when the GM film lab at Boulogne-sur-Seine was hit accidentally by an allied bomb. According to a 1965 TV interview with the eventual restorers of La règle du jeu, Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand, in the series “Les écrans de la vie, also included on disc two, prints of 80, 85 and 90 minute versions and sundry self-censored prints of the film were recalled in 1958 from all over the world after which they learned that some 224 boxes of positives, negatives, dupes, soundtracks and fragments of Renoir’s film had managed to survive the bombing. Amongst all this material Gaborit and Durand found some 20 minutes of the film they’d never seen before, and they put together an all new 106 minute version of the film, which premiered at the 1959 Venice Film Festival.

Surprisingly this, the definitive version, but certainly not the “director’s cut,” remained un-released in France until 1965, but, it is the version of La règle du jeu that most of us have seen, and, upon which the great reputation of the film is based. Equally surprising is the knowledge that it was the 81 minute version, which had been re-released in Paris after World War II that inspired Alain Resnais, among others, who said that “I only saw it in 1944. And, it still remains, I think, the most overwhelming experience I have had in the cinema in my whole life,” [the complete text is included in the “Written tributes” to the film on disc two], and most importantly, André Bazin, whose favourite film it was. As Faulkner states in his “illustrated study of Renoir’s shooting script,” on disc one, “Bazin died in 1958 without seeing the reconstructed version, which was dedicated to him. Therefore, much of what he wrote about the film only makes sense in light of his knowledge of the 81 minute and probably the 94 minute version.” And, what Bazin wrote on Renoir in general, and La règle du jeu in particular is among the most significant writing ever on the history and aesthetics of film. As Truffaut noted in his 1971 introduction …, “it is quite natural that I should feel that Jean Renoir by André Bazin is the best book on the cinema, written by the best critic, about the best director.” Among other things, Bazin argued that La règle du jeu was the “most advanced expression of prewar French realism” in cinema and that it was historically significant in prefiguring “the famous depth of field, now returned from America via Citizen Kane and The Best Years of Our Lives.” [p. 73] Of “realism,” Bazin wrote that “Jean Renoir’s pictorial sense is expressed above all in the attention he pays to the importance of individual things in relation to one another. He does not sacrifice the tree to the forest. Herein lies his true cinematic realism, rather than in his penchant for naturalistic subjects.” [p. 84] Also, from the same essay, “The French Renoir,” compiled by Janine Bazin into the book, I include a lengthy passage:

Throughout the entire last part of The Rules of the Game the camera acts like an invisible guest wandering about the salon and the corridors with a certain curiosity, but without any more advantage than its invisibility. The camera is not noticeably any more mobile than a man would be (if one grants that people run about quite a bit in this château). And the camera even gets trapped in a corner, where it is forced to watch the action from a fixed position, unable to move without revealing its presence and inhibiting the protagonists. This sort of personification of the camera accounts for the extraordinary quality of this long sequence. It is not striking because of the script or the acting, but as a result of Renoir’s half amused, half anxious way of observing the action.

No one has grasped the true nature of the screen better than Renoir; no one has successfully rid it of the equivocal analogies with painting and the theater. Plastically the screen is most often made to conform to the limits of a canvas, and dramatically it is modeled after the stage. With these two traditional references in mind, directors tend to conceive their images as boxed within a rectangle as do the painter and the stage director. Renoir on the other hand, understands that the screen is not a simple rectangle but rather the homothetic surface of the viewfinder of his camera. It is the very opposite of a frame. The screen is a mask whose function is no less to hide reality than to reveal it. …” [p. 87]

This, the film’s penultimate sequence runs for at least 25 minutes in all versions of the film, and still stands as the epitome of the realist style in the cinema. The Marquis, Robert de la Chesnaye (played by Marcel Dalio) and his wife Christine (Nora Gregor) have invited a large group of friends to their château, La Colinière for a weekend of hunting, which culminates in a fête where the hosts and some of the principal guests perform on stage. Previously, we had become familiar with the haute bourgeois residents and guests as well as the servants, who play the “game” of love as rigorously as their master. During the fête, everyone intermingles and confusion ensues between the stage performance and the “farce” played out in the rooms and hallways of the château, especially when the gamekeeper, Schumacher (Gaston Modot) chases and shoots at Marceau (Julien Carette) who is “poaching” his wife, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Christine’s maid. Sesonske provides an excellent account in his book of Renoir’s literary sources including Pierre Marivaux’s Le Jeu de l’amour et du hazard (The Game of Love and Chance, 1730), Alfred de Musset’s Les Caprices de Marianne (1833), and, Pierre Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro (1784) [pp. 389–93] and with the incredibly dynamic switching from one character and group of characters to another, alongside the doubling and matching of characteristics between the classes (“upstairs and downstairs”), one can reasonably assert that this passage of the film is veritably “Shakespearean.” Moreover, the apparent chaos is brilliantly arranged, staged for the camera, and filmed.

With this newly restored version, where dirt, debris and scratches have been digitally removed, I was able to appreciate the range of depth of field achieved by Renoir and his crew here, for the first time, having previously viewed only 16mm prints wherein the image was invariably soft. We can also detect subtle instances of rack focusing, where, even though all of the interior scenes were filmed with controlled lighting in the Joinville studios, full deep focus from near foreground to far background was still not achievable with the technology available in France, 1939. This great sequence of what Bazin conceptually termed “lateral depth of field,” where the “rest of the scene, while effectively hidden, should not cease to exist” [p. 89] is also an exemplary early example of the long take style. According to my calculations of frame counts and reel lengths provided in the Simon and Schuster screenplay (translated from the 1965 French version published by L’Avant-Scène du Cinéma), the fête sequence has an average shot length of approximately 24 seconds. This compares with a 19 second average for the entire film, and, most remarkably, with a 46 shot segment of the hunting sequence, more or less situated in the very middle of the film, which has an average shot length of only 3.8 seconds. Thus within the general fluid, long-take, staging-in-depth style of the film as a whole, Renoir deliberately counterpointed a sequence made in a vastly different, aggressively fragmented montage style to make the point that the upper-middle class were brutal. Renoir made it very clear that he couldn’t watch the killing of animals, which he abhorred. Indeed, La règle du jeu ends with Schumacher shooting and killing the aviator hero, André Jurieu (Roland Tutain), as if he were a rabbit.

In the main, the additional features on the Criterion special edition of La règle du jeu are excellent. The “tributes” provide a range of glowing appraisals, including writer/director Paul Schrader’s who finds it “stands above all other films because, quite simply, it has it all,” while film critic Amy Taubin considers it to be the “greatest film ever made” because she can “think of no other film that is as unfailingly generous—to its audience.” A new interview with set designer Max Douy suggests that credited art director Eugène Lourié may have even fled France before the film had been completed. (He was Jewish and feared the worst with Hitler threatening Czechoslovakia.) In addition to a vivid personal account of his father, Alain Renoir’s interview also provides some technical information: he was an assistant cameramen. 1995 interview material for Jacques Motte’s documentary, Histoires d’un tournage en Sologne with Mila Parély, who played the Marquis’ girlfriend, Geneviève de Marrast, is similar in providing a portrait of the director, and in concurring that the role Jean Renoir played, of Octave, as an intermediary between the classes, was highly autobiographical. Two television documentaries included on disc two, “Jean Renoir, le patron: La Règle et l’exception” (directed by Jacques Rivette, 1966) and Part one of “Jean Renoir,” a two-part BBC programme, directed by David Thompson, as well as an introduction by the director himself filmed to preview the restored version and included on disc one are all very useful in providing first hand accounts of the film and its reception. But the highlights are all provided by Christopher Faulkner.His illustrated study of Renoir’s shooting script, apparently based on an “annotated edition” which he co-authored with Olivier Curchod, and which would have resulted in a 130 minute film if it had been followed rigorously, is illuminating, and a side-by-side comparison of the two endings—8 1/2 minutes of the 81 minute version and 22 minutes of the restored version—is a revelation. With this, it is clear that Octave’s role had not only been diminished by cutting but that his complex and sympathetic character had been grossly simplified. Much of the initial criticism had centred on Renoir’s acting (which we now understand to have been deliberately “bad,” or at least “hammy”) and the weaknesses in Octave’s character, but, although no-one has ever suggested this, it could be that as a way of deflecting attention from his direction of the film, he reduced his role as an actor. In any event, it is interesting to note that Faulkner’s commentary more than once asserts that the 81 minute version is “harsher,” and more “cynical” than the 106 minute version, and he ends by saying that it is a “vicious portrait of unsavory characters in a murderous world.” thus, we must conclude that Renoir’s editing of his own film did not make it more palatable for a demoralized bourgeois audience on the brink of war. Two other supplements on disc one feature Chris Faulkner, an analysis of the shift from “private’ to “public,” illustrated with various clips and an extraordinary scene analysis of a 15 second deep focus shot near the end of the film, where the camera tracks-out to follow the movements of La Chesnaye and Jurieu in a corridor, suddenly bonding a friendship, while Octave enters the far background, scheming with Lisette. Brilliantly, Faulkner plays the same clip, over and over, providing a different commentary for each of the six passes. This is an excellent example of DVD voice-over-commentary, because we are led to observe and think about what we see in the shot, from a variety of perspectives. In the end, we can better understand what a complex, rich, and great film La règle du jeu is.

Unfortunately there are three major problems with the Criterion special edition of La règle du jeu. In anticipation of its release, I had been told that the double disc set would include the complete 81 minute version, perhaps, even, the 94 minute version. It may still not be possible to reconstruct the latter, but, Criterion could easily have given us a clean new copy of the former, especially in the light of Faulkner’s telling us that both 94 minute and 81 minute versions can be called “director’s cuts” and “have to be considered legitimate texts in their own right.” The absence of at least one these other two versions is a major flaw. The second problem I encountered was in listening to the voice-over commentary accompanying the 106 minute restoration. It was written by Alexander Sesonske and is read by Peter Bogdanovich. There’s nothing essentially wrong with the content of the commentary or the sound of Bogdanovich’s voice, but, it plays like an essay, and at times it feels like Bogdanovich is racing through the text in order to get everything said in the time allotted. Often, there is little or no relation between the commentary and the scene we are watching. Thus, rather than enhancing the image, the sound detracts from it. On one occasion, we are persuaded to “listen to” the sounds of the servants’ voices so that we can hear them copying their bosses, except that we are never given the opportunity to hear the sounds of the film, because the narrator’s voice dominates. I struggled to get through the entire length of the film listening to the commentary, and, I certainly won’t put myself through the experience again. I recommend that viewers of the disc read Sesonske’s book chapter on La règle du jeu rather than listen to the commentary, which, as far as I can tell adds little to his excellent, earlier analysis. But, the third “problem” is the worst. Not once in the voice-over, and rarely in the other supplements is any recognition given to the seminal criticism of André Bazin. Although Renoir, in his foreword, called Sesonske’s book his “arch of triumph” and although the director clearly felt in December 1977 that it was the key work on his oeuvre, written in English, the elision of Bazin’s thinking from any reappraisal of this particular film, which is still generally regarded as being one of the greatest ever made, seems to me to be wilfully dismissive, perhaps, even, criminal act. Shame on you, Criterion.

*The film was premiered simultaneously at the Aubert Palace, but accounts of the audience reaction mostly seem to refer to the Colisée screening. André Bazin’s “filmography” published by Cahiers du Cinéma at “Christmas” 1957 lists “3,006 metres, or 1 hour 52 minutes [Jean Renoir, p. 256],” the uncredited “Historical Note” to the English version of the screenplay lists 100 minutes [(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970) p. 21], while Christopher Faulkner, on the DVD notes that it was a 94 minute cut. Alexander Sesonske is ambiguous about the subject writing that “thirteen minutes were cut from the film before its release,” but not saying exactly how long the premiered version was. [p. 384] Faulkner seems to have revised his earlier highly detailed account of the film’s production history offered in “A Renoir Filmography” in Jean Renoir: a guide to references and resources (Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall & Co., 1979), pp. 114–27, where he claimed that the first cut was down to 100 minutes and the second to 90.

Bibliography of principal sources:

André Bazin, Jean Renoir, edited with an introduction by François Truffaut, translated from the French by W.W. Halsey II and William H. Simon (New York: Dell Publishing, 1974 [Janine Bazin and Editions Champs Libre, 1971]).

Jean Renoir, Rules of the Game, a screenplay, translated from the French by John McGrath and Maureen Teitelbaum (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970 [L’Avant-Scène du Cinéma, 1965]).

Alexander Sesonske, Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924–1939 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980).

La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game)

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

Volume 8, Issue 6 / June 2004 Blu-ray/DVD french cinemajean renoirpoliti