The Rules Of The Game
La Règle du jeu, directed by Jean Renoir, Nouvelle Editions Françaises, France, 1939, 110 mins.
Hated or ignored on its release in 1939, Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu is one of the most consistently admired of all films. An ensemble cast in an upstairs-downstairs country weekend enact the rituals of a dying civilization on the brink of war. With its deep staging and deep-focus cinematography, its long takes, and a fluid camera that seems to track the actors (rather than construct the action for the camera), the film became a touchstone of realist criticism.
In a widely read essay, "S/Z and Rules of the Game" (in the film journal Jump Cut, nos. 12–13, winter 1976–1977, pp. 45–51), Julia Lesage argued that in fact the film was constructed through the types of code identified by Roland Barthes and that its realism was merely the effect of cinematic and narrative technique. This formalist analysis would also inspire readings by, among others, Kristin Thompson, for whom the film is an elaborately constructed artifice. That Renoir appears in the film as the character Octave, caught between the aristocrats and the servants, inspired a number of auteur critics to single out the film as an account of the artist's role in society and in cinema. In his 1990s His toire du cinéma, the cinéaste Jean-Luc Godard returns many times to The Rules of the Game as if to an exemplary combination of formal innovation and political commitment.
Phenomenological and psychoanalytic critics have focused on the role of illusion in the film, the series of mistaken identities that propel the plot, and the ethos of "keeping up appearances" that leads to the final tragedy. Still baffling for textual analysts is the charm and the comedy that have kept the film popular not only with critics but with film buffs for more than sixty years. Compellingly humanist in outlook—Renoir's direction rarely if ever seems to dislike his characters—the film's narrative nonetheless enacts a damning satire on a rigidly stratified society that prides itself on the appearances through which it lies to itself. This paradox of a realist cinema portraying an unreal society maintains the film's interest long after that society has faded away.
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