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#6: the rules of the game (jean renoir, 1939)

(This is the 45th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

I first saw Renoir’s two classic films from the late 1930s, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, around the same time in the early 70s. From that first viewing, I thought Grand Illusion was one of the greatest of all movies, and I haven’t changed my mind, even if for the purposes of this list I left it off so I could write about Rules (I have written about Grand Illusion in the past). But the first time I saw The Rules of the Game, I didn’t get what all the excitement was about.

Somewhere along the way, though, The Rules of the Game became my favorite Renoir movie. I wish I could explain why; I suspect one reason I haven’t written about it before is that I can’t put my finger on what makes it great. It’s not enough to just say “watch it and you’ll know what I mean,” especially since more than most movies, Rules of the Game rewards multiple viewings (and I don’t usually like movies that require you to see them more than once to appreciate them). I can tell you that Renoir’s use of deep focus is so complete and so subtle that you can watch the film over and over and get more out of it just by paying attention to what’s going on in the background. There are few better examples of how to make style work as substance than right here. Renoir isn’t showing off, he’s using unusual (for its time) techniques to give depth (no pun intended, but I wish I had intended it, it’s a good one) to his movie.

The Rules of the Game, hated so much when it was first shown to a French audience, is not as single-mindedly dismissive of the upper classes as you might have heard. There is a tendency when showing this film to modern audiences to explain the context of its production and subsequent negative reception: Renoir made the film as Hitler was preparing the moves that would lead to World War II, and the upper-class Frenchmen and women in the movie are so unconcerned with what is going on outside of their own world that Fascism is never mentioned. Renoir isn’t attacking Nazis here; rather, he is anticipating the French response to the near future and finding the French lacking. But Renoir has always been the cinema’s great humanist. So even the upper-class denizens of The Rules of the Game are allowed a depth of character that makes them, not exactly likable, but understandable. The tragedy of the film isn’t that these are evil people, but that they are ordinary people who exist at a remove from the rest of society, and thus don’t always understand the larger implications of their actions. Thus, the most quoted line in the film isn’t when Octave says that everyone lies, but when he says that “the awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”


To be honest, I wish there had been more comments, since (obviously) I think this is a great film, and because I think I did a nice job writing about it. A couple of people agreed that it was great, and another said he would be watching it soon in a film class.