Jean Renoir: “La Règle du Jeu” (1939) and “La Grande Illusion” (1937)

Yesterday was Jean Renoir’s 124th birthday, and, to pay tribute, I am reviewing two of this eminent French director’s most famous cinematic creations, which both influenced numerous films made after them and are now considered cinema classics – “The Rules of the Game” (1939) and “La Grande Illusion” (1937).    

The Rules of the Game PosterLa Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) (1939)

This film is, arguably, Jean Renoir’s greatest achievement. In the story, a circle of rich socialites meets up in a country house of Christine and her husband Robert de la Cheyniest. The complications then follow as it becomes apparent that aviator André Jurieux is deeply in love with Christine, and Christine’s own husband, Robert, is entangled in a love affair of his own. Coupled to this, Christine’s personal maid Lisette becomes interested in the recent addition to the servant staff – a poacher Marceau, despite having a husband. An intermediary between the couples is Octave, Christine’s trusted friend, played by Jean Renoir himself. “La Regle du Jeu” is very much an “upstairs/downstairs” film where the director satirises the life of the bourgeois on the eve of the war, often contrasting them with their servants. The socialites’ frivolousness, including the fleetness of their passions, are exposed and ridiculed, and, in the end, the characters’ paths and motivations collide and the ultimate sacrifice is made on the societal altar to self-absorption and complacency.

The tagline of the film is that everyone has their reasons, and the beginning of the film exemplifies this. Aviator André Jurieux lands in his aircraft outside Paris and breaks a flying record, with the whole Paris there to meet and hail him a national hero. However, he has his own reasons for doing such a feat and it is not for any national glory. André is in love with Christine, and hopes to impress her with his achievement. However, Christine is not even present with all the other Parisians to witness André’s achievement and the disillusionment sets in. When arrangements are made to invite André to Christine and Robert’s country estate, La Colinière, for shooting, the question becomes – in what circumstances will the “lovers” meet and what kind of a relationship will ensue.

Renoir presents to his audience the loose morality of the characters, and does not distinguish much in that respect between the masters and the servants. In the movie, nearly everyone seems to know about another person’s illicit affairs, deals or “the game”, and although it provokes indignation in some, the fleetness of the emotion and their own self-absorption prevent them from pondering on it too much. To that effect, the story has Octave (Jean Renoir), who seems to represent the only sense of reason in the chaotic, but intricate arrangement of love pairs, and who can survey the situation and take action based on another’s desires and best interests. However, what also feels distinct about the story is that characters themselves recognise their shortcomings, the games that they play and the higher rules that govern every aspect of their lives. Most of the characters have no illusions about love in their society or sly games they have to play to win. Robert’s mistress declares: “In a society, love is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins”, and another character pronounces: “We are trying to put cards on the table, yes, but it is in your interest not to show yours”.

One of the film director’s greatest achievements in this film is that “La Regle du Jeu” feels both surreal, almost unbelievable and strangely familiar, only too plausible. This is a total contradiction, but that was the point of Jean Renoir. The situation presented may seem ludicrous, but it can be recognised and the characters in it can even be sympathised with. As “La Regle du Jeu” shines with insightful, ironical comments on the master and their servants’ relationship, the French film gave many ideas to the Academy Award-winning film “Gosford Park” (2001), which follows similar structure to “La Regle du Jeu”. As in the French movie, “Gosford Park” has a hunting sequence and, at some point, focuses on the new arrival to the servants’ dining table. 

The scenes and references to hunting in the film are not incidental. In the world of this circle of privileged people, everything is for amusement, from rabbits running in the field to new acquaintances. Robert’s circle does not think twice about killing birds and rabbits for sport, even though it is the senseless taking of a life that actually takes place (not matter how small and insignificant that life may appear to be). Moreover, during the hunt scene, the characters’ biggest joke is about a man who accidentally shoots himself in the thigh and dying within twenty minutes. Renour’s audience should straightaway recognise then what kind of a mentality will be on display in this story. But, how can this taste be considered bad if the society at large agrees that its notions of elegance and manners are undisputable? Should we really view these characters negatively when they are the society itself and appear merely actors on stage playing their roles in a society governed by rules. Who are the real villains here and what is the definition of free choice? Are the characters ,or maybe the rules that govern them, true villains? Characters can sometimes blatantly ignore how things should be, but how far can they really progress on that path without being sacrificed themselves?

 “La Regle du Jeu”’s production and reception are as notorious as the film. At the time it was made, the film was the most expensive French film ever made, and, because Renoir was acclaimed for his previous films, people had much hope about this movie. However, when it came out, it was received largely negatively and was even banned in France. However, when the film then “premiered” in its new form in Venice some twenty years after it was made, many hailed it one of the greatest films ever made. It is no wonder people had a different view of the film some years after, because there are so many things which make “La Regle du Jeu” such a great movie. There is, of course, Renoir’s fascinating, sharp societal commentary, with him employing wit and irony to present and mock social arrangements and complex interlinks between the characters. However, the acting is also great in the film, and, because it is a film d’ensemble, it benefits from a “realist” way of shooting a film, whereby the audience feels it is merely presented with some fragments of real life and there is also much going on beyond the borders of the frame. “La Regle du Jeu” is a different kind of a film because it does not focus on one or two character and never identifies itself with any. Rather, it is the message and the themes which matter, and, even though one may think that one watches a mere light comedy of manners, it can transpire afterwards that it was, in reality, an honest, complex and deep observational film, which fused comedy and tragedy masterfully.

In “La Regle du Jeu, Renoir shows that there can be no line between seriousness/tragedy and comedy, and there is a method in his display of madness. In the final scenes of the film, the situation at La Colinière gets out of control, while passions continue to rage, and, as in Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion”, “enemies” start to rationalise their feelings of animosity with surprising results. It is only in the last twenty minutes of the film we realise how inconsequential everything presented really was if now “villains and heroes” are prepared to strike deals to suit their interests. The notion of romantic love is turned on its head, not least by the fact that the most coveted person from the ensemble – Christine – is not even sure herself whom she likes the most, displacing her allegiance from one person to the next in the blink of an eye. It seems like every character in the story subconsciously desired (or even willed) the end result to happen, but we have not noticed it at the beginning. Like in “La Grande Illusion”, the message of Renoir in this movie also seems to be that idols are sometimes not worth fighting over for and what we may perceive as one’s “idol”, may be far from it. This is because, at the end of the day– everyone got their reasons, and we may also not see our picture clearly because we also have ours. 10/10

La Grand Illusion PosterLa Grande Illusion (1937)

 “La Grande Illusion” is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest anti-war films of all times. This story of French military men finding their paths converging and developing friendship, as they are taken prisoners of war in Germany, cannot help but be profound and moving. The setting is the WWI, and Renoir presents the tale of friendship and love, emphasising both the futility of war and men’s common humanity. His social observation remains as astute as ever, and Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay shine in the leading roles of officers who were captured and imprisoned by the German army.

Jean Renoir wastes no time putting his message about war across. From the first scenes, references to illusions and paradoxes are apparent. The French officers Marechal and de Boeldieu are captured by the Germans, but they are, then, invited to share plates of food with German officers, seemingly being treated with respect. The meal is presided over by Captain von Rauffenstein of the German army who establishes a friendly contact with de Boeldieu, whom he considered an equal. The officers’ almost surreal position in the camp can be contrasted with atrocity and sheer terror continuing on in the battlefields. In a subtle way, the film ridicules the roles of people in the war. It all becomes similar to a theatre where people have to take on certain roles, for example, of enemies, when they are not comfortable playing them and their hearts and minds maybe against the idea. References to an illusion are also in the dialogue. “We have to end this damn war and make it the last”, says a character, and his pal answers, [It is all alright], but now [let’s get] back to reality. Even men’s cross-dressing in the plot is the fact with an illusion at its core, because there is a hint at the longing for a make-believe again so that prisoners can forget for an instance that they are who they are now and can picture themselves free, totally happy and in the company of women.

Maréchal and de Boeldieu are first taken to a prisoners camp where they find that other prisoners are already near to the building completion of an escape tunnel in their cell. But, not long after they arrive, Maréchal and de Boeldieu are then taken to another camp in the ancient castle, with no other than von Rauffenstein being in charge of the prisoners this time. The prisoners again plot an escape, but the duty of von Rauffenstein is to stop such thing from happening. Like in later “La Regle du Jeu” (1939), Renoir is preoccupied with the class and social ladders. Officers may be distinguished from soldiers, but officers from aristocracy seem to enjoy even more privileges. Nationally, some characters may be thousands of miles away from each other, but the code of honour/human understanding still binds them together and refuses to separate them. In that vein, the focus is also on the notion of brotherhood and camaraderie between the characters. The point is that borders and nationalities should mean nothing if we all have a human heart because we can feel the pain of others and sympathise. “Are you sure it is Switzerland…it looks so alike,” asks Maréchal his companion when they are near the Germany/Switzerland border and looking at another country, and hears a reply: “yes….frontiers are invented by man not nature.” It becomes illusionary to separate countries, because, at the end of the day, it is still land, and no matter what passports somebody holds, they are as capable of love and friendship as any other person.

The fact that the film has a great characterisation and is imbued with the sense of realism, due to improvised dialogue and camera movements, is also what makes it so superior. The audience recognises that no character is really perfect in the story, and, although humour should feel out of place in such a grave story, it is strangely refreshing and eases the audience into the film. The film also explores and touches upon such concepts/themes as nostalgia for old times and the inability to turn back time. “I am afraid neither I nor you can arrest the march of time” is the line of a dialogue between two officers who now know that they can never return to their idealised past.

As “La Regle du Jeu”, the last twenty five or so minutes of “La Grande Illusion” is somewhat different from the rest of the film. If the film previously focused on providing a commentary on war and human condition, near the end of the film, Renoir appeals to our hearts, and there is much emotion felt. Nothing ground-breaking is shown, and yet every shot is like a sorrowful ode to love, friendship and hope.

“La Grande Illusion” is not only an insightful film which makes a powerful statement on the absurdity of war, with a hint of satire/humour, but also a profound picture, full of human warmth and hope for the future. 10/10

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2 Responses to Jean Renoir: “La Règle du Jeu” (1939) and “La Grande Illusion” (1937)

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the film, they are truly insightful. I’m interested in what you think about the historical context of the “Rules of the Game”, since the plot happens just before WW2. It seems as a straightforward critique of rulling class’ enstrangement from reality and the upcoming catastrophe. Although this interpretation is a commonplace, I’m interested in your thoughts when you compare this to your understanding of the film. Thanks. 🙂

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Yes, you are right. I think Renoir also wanted to put this message across about the ruling class and its shallow and thoughtless attitude towards the war. It is evident when watching the film that the socialites live in the world of their own, and I have read some analyses of the film that also point to Renoir’s criticism of the bourgeois’ views about the forthcoming war. But, to be honest, the reason I did not emphasise this in my review too much is because, unlike some others, I did not find this point to be too strong in the film. There is hardly a mention about the war, and I saw the film more about the inner faults of the ruling class and their carelessness when it comes to the important things in life, including loyalty, love – yes, and, of course, human and other lives. This was especially so for me because the film focused on love relationships throughout.

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