Update late 2018: Europe in its abyssal, post-WWII ruination became the subject of so many films, and so many prismatic interpretations of film. From Europe demolished and rebuilt through cinema’s moral humanism and deceptive collectivity in Bicycle Thieves to Europe rotted out as an expressionistic image of America’s disingenuous attitude toward Europe as a canvas for its own self-making in The Third Man to a Europe that both can and cannot be remembered at all in Night and Fog, post-war Europe poses many reflections and wears many faces. But WWII in cinema from the years leading up to the war tends to be read teleologically, as a slow shoring up of the known future of WWII. Critics think through, for instance, Fritz Lang’s Weimar cinema as a prophecy of Nazism and Europe’s guaranteed future moral demolition, a revelation of an impending truth many Westerners were unable to notice beforehand, no other possibilities emerging beyond the gradual rise of fascism.
But not so for Renoir. In The Rules of the Game, futurity remains a precious contingency, every single character’s moral fate hanging in a balance they often don’t realize, inclining toward a war they may not see but which Renoir is unwilling to cynically commit to. He reserves his characters’ futures, preferring not to stretch his humans across time as icons of undying, static types but, rather, to see them all as living, breathing humans. They are not crystallized as metaphors but, rather, rhyme with and intimate a larger social canvas through their particularity, not their generality. A deeply humanist film, Renoir’s work is truly empathic, which necessitates the hard work of tracing the imaginative lives of each character and their own internal cross-currents, their ideological conflicts, their crises of consciousness, and the shifting planes of sight and sound in the world which animate possibilities of connection and understanding for characters who suddenly and tragically fail to fulfill these opportunities through no evil of their own. Renoir’s film, with no villains and no heroes, is an indelible portrait of the public images we cast of ourselves, and the shadow worlds – of ourselves, of others, of the possibility of connection, of other potential futures – which those social images sometimes expose, and more often than not occlude.
Although it may seem less biting today, Jean Renoir’s seminal La Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game) remains one of the most controversial films ever released. It was at one point ruthlessly censored in just about every way possible in France except an outright ban. On one level, one can imagine the understanding behind its danger. The film is undeniably pointed in its critique of French social aristocracy. But it’s also shocking in how pure and light on its toes it feels today – the narrative, boiled down, is a rather simple affair of aristocrats cheating on one another and struggling to establish love and truth in their identities. This is the narrative of many a film, and on the surface, the film feigns a similar tone to many other films bearing the same subject: cheerful quirk and light mockery.
Yet, the film also bears a much greater weight as it glides and hurtles toward its conclusion. It’s a light affair, all things considered, but one which burns with bitter irony and a playful need to dismantle society it can’t help; soon enough, the nimble and bubbly qualities become perverted and lithely prowling, sneaky and sinister like a too-wide clown grin hiding feral teeth. An ensemble production, it draws too many characters to count, all broadly, but all with careful, penetrating insight into human character, letting them all loose in a small space and seeing what comes of it. Much of the film takes place at a French country manor where a large social gathering is being drawn up. Within, the members of the aristocracy scurry about, utilizing the gathering for nothing other than playful sneaking and selfish aloofness – they run around, poke into rooms, and hide and discover secrets as they play around with their social structure and the internal rules and relationships, the literal rules of the game. All the while, they struggle to maintain a semblance of class structure and moralist authority to everyone else around them. It just so happens that “everyone else around them” happens to be engaging in the same double life as stodgy moralists on the surface and impassioned, fey children at the core.
If the film seems “light” and unconcerned about the decadent behaviors of its characters, that is because the characters are okay with it, and it’s interested in revealing and mocking this very fact. At one point late in the film, gun shots echo outside the mansion, shots which could clearly be heard if not for the self-centered tunnel vision of the guests. They pay no attention, continuing with their card games and their interpersonal quandaries. The core of the film is in fact that they are indifferent, and the film’s form follows suit. We are treated to proper lunacy, with all manner of hijinks and characters running around in the mansion and hiding from each other, as if we’d been transported to a comedy caper film – we keep expecting a tension from these characters having to hide their selves from others who may find out. And they do go to great lengths for this purpose, but seemingly for no reason. Others pass them by and see their abnormal behavior and keep walking, because they aren’t concerned about anyone but themselves. Everyone must care about the code of morals guiding the aristocracy – they all spend the entire film trying to care – and yet everyone is too busy being selfish to realize none of them truly knows for what reason they care other than because “that is how life is”. Dehumanizing themselves through lies is second nature to them at this point, part of their identity. The whole film is filled with people looking at everyone else and not really seeing anything – if they did see, maybe they’d have something to bond over, and maybe the “rules” would be exhibited for the falsities and human tragedies they are.
Late in the film, an inevitable tragedy does strike, but the men and women of the manor seem not to care, reflecting their insular mental states and evoking a tragedy of timeless proportions. But the film also reveals something very prescient for the France of 1939, where the film was made and released on the edge of World War II. Soon enough, Nazi Germany would have control of France, headed up by the reactionary, collaborationist Vichy regime – often headed by right-wing aristocratic types – which had turned a blind eye to both Germany’s horrors and the poverty of and violence against many Europeans at the time. The film plays like an unnerving cautionary tale for France, a critique of the tendencies of the aristocracy to see themselves above society and find themselves alone in their distanced personhoods. In this light, the film is not only prescient but undeniably, if quietly, terrifying. It reveals, furthermore, that they weren’t running around to hide tragedy. Their running around, their not stopping to notice everyone else, is the tragedy.
The central reason why the film may seem light-hearted, however, isn’t the deceptively cheeky script. It is Renoir’s magisterial camera which here glides and floats like no other. He doesn’t so much move it as let it free to float of its own free will through the halls and rooms of the manor with heavenly precision, connecting characters and defining their relationships via continuous space. It allows him to capture the opulent wealth of the mansion, its big wide corridors where secrets are created, kept at any cost, and yet not always discovered, where people are made and unmade, used and abused, where relationships are formed and ended. It allows us to see into depths of their souls only to see that nothing is there. It makes the camera a character, a participant, in itself.
For this reason, because the camera doesn’t lash about and instead gently glides, the film feels gentle and so full of mirth, like it couldn’t have an angry bone in its body – it seems to treat its characters, for all their horrible acts, with heartfelt empathy and the warmth of a classic romantic comedy. But if the camera is gentle and elegiac, it reveals a tension and irony in the film’s madcap fracas. Characters run in and out of the frame as if guiding it and paying no attention to it observing them. They are at once going too fast to be observed, as they move too quickly while leaving the rest of society behind in poverty, and moving nowhere in their pure focus on the self. The camera doesn’t so much like the characters as it becomes them only to subvert them. It moves too quickly to judge, because the characters act similarly.
The camera however flips the characters on their head by pretending to not care, pretending to ape them, but deep down because it reveals the inability of such a person to judge by literally having the camera unable to judge them, it ends up judging them more harshly than anything else could. It wants to be them, but because it knows humanity and warmth, and they don’t, it gets crushed under the weight of trying to be clinical and detached like them. This is what it cannot do, and something the film’s characters, in their perpetual dehumanization and human distance, can do nothing but. The film has to be light, but in light it reveals the darkness lying in wait underneath.
Ultimately, the people in The Rules of the Game do nothing but play games. They perform, in other words, the “rules” of the game of class-relations, the game of performing an aristocratic life. But their games go deeper. Throughout the film the rules of their class cripple them from revealing their love to anyone else. But they also do something more crippling in turning the very acts of love they try to hide from everyone into games as well. In turn, not only are they playing a game and a performance in not revealing that they are breaking the rules of the class, but they are ultimately playing the games of the class in their very attempting to break the rules of the class. Even though they spend the entire film trying to hide their secret affairs and love, no one in the film really seems to love anyone else – they could perhaps want to love, if only they could care. Instead, they play “love” by trying to love, or thinking they can love.
What they don’t realize, or perhaps they do and don’t care, is that such playing around to reveal a semblance of humanity away from the soullessness of the firm aristocratic rules of the game is in fact part of the game itself. Their aristocracy, their soulless distance from the world, has made them lose any semblance of true love or affection. Having a secret affair doesn’t reflect their true love, their true humanity crushed under the weight of having to play the rules of the game, but that the rules have subsumed any leftover humanity and taken control of even their most passionate acts. The rules which structure their human distance has taken control of even their attempt to break those rules – thus, when they do engage in secret acts, they seem not to care, and the theatrical performances of the actors convey this with brutal artifice. In everything they do they are acting because they know nothing of honesty outside of acting a part, even when they are trying not to.
In other words, the characters spend the entire film trying to “play” the game, as in flaunt it and subvert it and break its rules, while they are nominally “playing” – as in adhering to – the game by its unofficial rules. But in reality they can only do the latter, for it has taken control of the former. Even in true love they are performing, literally “playing” a part of who they want to be to others around them, perhaps hoping they do get seen. Even when alone they are still playing a part, still acting out an identity to themselves and only themselves because this sense of identity is all they have and all they know.
To expose this performative lack of humanity, Renoir visually explores performance throughout the film – during the famous hunting scene a character looks through eyeglasses at a squirrel only to see her husband cheating on her, timed perfectly as if they had done it just for her. Later on the camera’s famed deep focus, which allows it to capture the foreground and many layers of the background with equal detail, moves in and out of the different layers of their performances to capture the “onstage” action of their peformative lives, the images they construct for themselves, with the “offstage” non-performance, only to reveal that everything we make think of as a “reality” – their affairs they struggle to hide – are in fact their most sinister performances throughout. In turn, we realize that their games aren’t only public, but private – they’ve subsumed the rules into their cores, and in trying to break them they uphold them. One moment, where a stage-show light turns onto the stage-viewing characters themselves, glimpsing them each in a calamity of uncertainty, epiphanically clarifies the performative nature of identity, not to mention the perpetual uncertainty of people who wish to command or manipulate the gazes of others, but, in doing so, rely on and are prey to those gazes as well.
Like its central location, Renoir’s work is full of mysteries and counter-intuitive tensions: bitter mirth, joyous implication, screwball comedy with a dark, cautionary edge, and layers upon layers of subversive, brittle irony. It is perhaps the most innocent-seeming, pure, unrivaled social critique on elitist inhumanity ever produced, all the scarier because it adopts the form of blasé entertainment, the aristocratic screwball farce, that it strives to deconstruct from within. Even if it does understand their inhumanity and tragedy, it does not sympathize with these characters. It’s so angry with them it can do nothing but observe – it can’t seethe with anger for it has no anger left to give.