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. Continue reading