The film I write on today is one that has the resonance of great literature. It is also a film that affirms our humanity in the face of fear. Since too often we let fear set us against one another, it is good to look at a work of art that reminds us to focus that we are all worthwhile individuals struggling to get along. We each of us have dreams that we fail to live up to and insecurities that hamstring us. Director Jean Renoir understands this about us.
Rules of the Game (La Regle du Jeu) came out at a fearful time and it paid a price for its unflinching honesty. The time was July of 1939 and France was only two months away from war with Germany, a war that would lead to its conquest and subjugation. The country was in an intense state of denial and Renoir called it out.
He called it out through, of all things, a comedy of manners. Rules of the Game is about a hunting party in the country hosted by a marquis. Everyone is in love with Christine, the wife of the marquis, including a daring young aviator reminiscent of Lindbergh who has flown the English channel at night; Christine’s childhood friend Octave (played by Renoir) who once had aspirations to be a great musician but who has become a hanger-on; and the marquis himself.
Christine, a pure soul, dreams of a life lived without lies. She thinks she has found it in her marriage to the marquis—and he, in turn, resolves to “be worthy of my wife”—but she then learns about his mistress. This sends her into free fall and she looks for a man who can live up to her ideals. At one point it seems to be the aviator, but she discovers that a hero in the air can have “feet of clay” when it comes to the earth. Then she thinks it will be Octave, but he loses his nerve—he fears that she will become disillusioned with him and bails out on their plan to run off together. The occasion calls for heroic action and none of the men is able to step up.
Although the film at times resembles comic melodrama, a sense of violence and doom pervades it. Some of the atmosphere is set up by an extended hunt containing scenes of violence that, for the time, were unprecedented. Although it is the privileged classes who are slaughtering scores of pheasants and rabbits, we have the sense that a fearful rage bubbles beneath the surface of society as a whole, threatening to erupt at any moment. A militaristic gamekeeper (he is from Alsace) directs the hunt, and one can very easily imagine him becoming a fascist in the years to come. In a case of mistaken identity, at the end of the film he shoots the aviator, and the partiers, shell-shocked, retreat into their mansion.
The film is now considered one of cinema’s most respected works. Every ten years since 1962, in the Sight and Sound poll, international film critics have voted Rules of the Game as either the second or third greatest film ever made. Yet when it first appeared, it was a spectacular failure.
People came to the theater prepared to see a masterpiece. That is how Renoir announced it and he was already revered, the son of the legendary painter and director of the very impressive Grande Illusion. Instead, audiences saw a film that baffled and scared them. Booing began early in some theaters and never stopped. It was a debacle of monumental proportions.
Everything went downhill after that. Renoir had sunk all of his own money and that of friends into the film and couldn’t afford to have a failure. (He also sold many of his father’s paintings to finance it.) He cut the scenes where audiences booed the loudest but that didn’t help. Then, when World War II began in September, the film was banned by the French military as a threat to French morale. When France was conquered, first the Vichy government and then the Germans also banned the film. Then the one complete copy of the film (before Renoir’s cuts) was destroyed by allied bombing. A fitting end, many thought.
Only that wasn’t the end. After the war film stock from Rules of the Game was discovered in a warehouse, and fans of Renoir started reconstructing the original film. Renoir was there for consultation and, in the end, all but 90 seconds of the original film were restored. When people saw the film in 1959, they felt they were in the presence of greatness.
In my opinion, the film failed in 1939 because it put its finger directly on a France’s deepest anxiety, a fear that its men would not be able to rise to the German challenge that everyone saw coming. There was a lot of militaristic bluster and many bombastic declarations of patriotism at the time but these covered over the insecurity, even the fatalism, of a country that was still in shock over the trauma of World War I. Renoir named the anxiety that no one wanted to acknowledge and as a result elicited a hysterical response.
As fellow filmmaker Marcel Carnet said when his own films were banned by the Vichy government, they blamed the barometer for the weather.
What makes the film great, in my opinion, is the way that is shows how (in the words of Octave) “everyone has his reasons.” One sympathizes with the marquis, the aviator, Octave, Christine, the mistress, even the gamekeeper. They are in the midst of a tragedy but no one is really to blame.
That’s why the film is so important for us today. In a time of intense polarization, we often let our fears drive us when instead we should be striving to see the humanity that each carries within him or her. As Renoir reveals, it takes heroism to do so, the heroism of everyday life. The challenge should spur us on, not discourage us.