- French Film Guide: La Règle du jeu
In its brief 124 pages, Keith Reader’s French Film Guide: La Règle du jeu includes a significant amount of important information. It functions as both a history of the film’s (re)construction and critical reception and a scene-by-scene analysis of the film, including commentary on much of the important critical work already written about it. Reader, a professor of Modern French Studies at Glasgow University, calls La Règle du jeu an “Everest of French Cinema,” as revealing today as it was when released in the spring of 1939 (11). Causing a near riot when first shown, it maintained its reputation as a film maudit until it was painstakingly restored in 1959 and then rehabilitated by film critic André Bazin; he proclaimed it a masterpiece of filmmaking and its director a true cinematic auteur. Reader argues that the film served as a model not only for New Wave filmmakers (i.e., Truffaut, Godard, Renais, Chabrol), but that its influence can be seen in films as recent as Robert Altman’s 2001 Gosford Park.
Reader structures his guide more or less chronologically: from the film’s prehistory, filming, and early reception, to a concise summary of criticism since the film’s re-release, thereby demonstrating the author’s impressive knowledge of the film and its numerous critics. I found the mid-section of the guide most enlightening as Reader’s detailed interpretation brings out the many ways in which the film mirrors (consciously or perhaps unconsciously) the desperation and palpable anxiety that gripped France between the Munich Accord of 1938 and France’s Declaration of War on [End Page 8] September 2, 1939. When interviewed later in life, Renoir described his characters and their world in La Règle du jeu as “dancing on a volcano” (11). The breakdown of the French aristocracy’s and haute bourgeoisie’s social mores continues throughout the film, gaining momentum in the famous hunt scene at the country chateau, La Colinière, and culminating there in one chaotic evening. The disastrous soirée comes to a close when the property’s just-fired groundskeeper, Schumacher, fatally shoots André Jurieux, a heroic pilot in love with Christine, wife of the chateau’s owner, the Marquis Robert La Chesnaye, in a case of mistaken identity. Reader points out how Renoir drew upon classic themes in French comedies by eighteenth and nineteenth century authors such as Marivaux, Beaumarchais, and Musset to produce a film “steeped in intertextuality” that disturbingly mixes genres and social classes (12). Hence, the “game” of the title represents the social roles we adopt, the “play” between so-called reality and appearances. (In French, “un jeu” means both a theatrical play and a game.) The show within a show put on at the soirée creates, like the many mirrors that have pride of place in the film, a mise en abyme of theater and acting, foregrounding the way we all perform for one another.
Reader invokes Gilles Deleuze’s filmic metaphor of a many-faceted crystal, which helps us perceive how characters upstairs and down pair up in Renoir’s film as various relationships develop and shift. For Deleuze, Schumacher, the repressed Alsatian guardian assigned to keep order, is key: uncannily like the Germans who will occupy France the following year and contribute to the breakdown of civilized behavior, Schumacher is the one who liberates the Freudian id when his wife, Lisette, Christine’s personal maid, is pursued by rabbit poacher turned house servant, Marceau. Layers of irony and hypocrisy continue to accumulate. When Schumacher shoots Jurieux, the games of love—and, we might say, the hunt—precipitously shuts down. Robert, who hitherto had fired Schumacher for shooting his gun among the guests as he wildly chased Lisette and Marceau, here defends Schumacher as performing his duty. In fact, Robert names the gunning down and immediate death of Jurieux “a tragic mistake.” The other aristos close rank, take up again the “rules of the game” by keeping...