La Regle du Jeu (1939) – Film Review
Director: Jean Renoir
Cast: Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost
By Sarah Morgan
Is La Regle Du Jeu really the 13th best film ever made? That’s what the critics who voted in Sight and Sound’s recent poll claim – according to them it’s not quite as good as The Godfather, but is better than The Searchers, Apocalypse Now and Seven Samurai.
My favourite film of all time, The Elephant Man, didn’t even make it into the top 250, so I’m rather dubious about the quality of the entire list, but I’m always intrigued by what my fellow critics feel deserves to make it, so switched on Jean Renoir’s acclaimed satire in great anticipation.
The story takes place shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, with France’s idle rich indulging themselves during a weekend hunting trip. Hosting it are the Marquis de la Chesnaye and his Austrian wife Christine. Both are having extra-marital affairs; he with the attractive Geneviève, she with famed aviator Andre. Their lovers are also invited to the party – that’s how sophisticated the bunch is. Joining them are a selection of their Parisian friends, including the kind and sensitive Octave.
Meanwhile, the servants are also up to mischief, including Christine’s maid Lisette, who’s married to the Marquis’ gamekeeper Schumacher, but revels in making him jealous by flirting with anyone within touching distance.
It’s her teasing that drives him to commit an appalling act which, due to the moral callousness of the upper-class folk around him, is brushed over with barely more than a Gallic shrug.
As someone schooled in low-budget horrors and film noir, I’m sometimes a little late in catching up with the classics; while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some, I’ve also occasionally been left bewildered by the applause they’ve received when I do eventually get around to watching them.
La Regle du Jeu (aka The Rules of the Game) falls somewhere between both – I can appreciate why it’s important without fully feeling engaged with it. The characters, apart from Octave (played by Renoir himself), are mostly pretty horrible, carrying on as if they don’t have a care in the world, and that they can do whatever they like whenever they want without fear of repercussions. It’s hard to empathise with them, and while not wanting to give away too many spoilers, the fact they don’t receive their comeuppance leaves a bad taste.
There’s also a long and gut-wrenching hunting scene that simply wouldn’t be made today – I’m not a huge fan of CGI effects, but at least its development means we don’t have to witness the real-life slaughter of innocent animals, as we do here.
But the scene is important in its way – it shows how little the protagonists care about the lives and suffering of others.
Renoir’s use of the camera is, however, wonderful, with brilliant movement and use of deep-focus, a full two years before Orson Welles memorably employed it in Citizen Kane.
For those who wish to understand more about Renoir’s vision, among the special features are a new commentary recorded by film writers David Jenkins and Trevor Johnston and Jean Douchet and Pierre Oscar Lévy’s 1987 documentary which provides a detailed analysis.