Academic journal article Post Script

Re-Reading the Rules: Renoir's la Regle Du Jeu Reconsidered

Academic journal article Post Script

Re-Reading the Rules: Renoir's la Regle Du Jeu Reconsidered

Article excerpt

It may not be remembered that before World War II, and even for some time after it, Jean Renoir was by no means ranked as the supreme French film director. Marcel Carne, Rene Clair, Jacques Feyder, and Julien Duvivier were all considered at least his equals, or even his superiors. His work, by comparison with theirs, was felt to lack polish and dramatic shape; both technically and morally, Renoir's movies seemed rough, often tentative or self-questioning. It was only around the early 1950s, with the advent of the Cahiers du cinema school of auteurist criticism, that Renoir's stock began to rise even as that of the other 1930s directors (with the sole exception of Jean Vigo) fell. Truffaut, speaking for his fellow [Cahiers] critics and New Wave directors hailed Renoir as 'the father of us all.' (1)

During the heyday of Cahiers du cinema and the politique des auteurs--the so-called auteur theory--the young French cinema was rejecting the established criteria of cinematic merit, which had much to do with literary orthodoxy and which celebrated such cinematically barren but financially successful films as Marcel Pagnol's popular pre-war trilogy Marius, Fanny, Cesar (all three adapted from Pagnol's own plays). The Cahiers critics favored a cinema of authorial primacy for the writer-director that ignored the pedigree of literary antecedents preferred by their elders. And the critical impulse that brought auteurism into vogue prepared the way for the intensely personal cinema of the nouvelle vague, the New Wave of critics-turned-filmmakers who shocked the bourgeoisie at the same time as they energized French moviemaking.

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That the Cahierists, who hoisted the "auteurial" flag and gave the world the New Wave, venerated Renoir above all other French filmmakers is not a surprise. Renoir took chances, made films on risk or instinct, insulted political sensibilities, challenged the Hollywood studio system during his self-imposed wartime exile, and actually managed to make some interesting movies in the United States despite the best efforts of American producers not to understand him. Certainly, few today would dispute Renoir's status as one of the greatest of all filmmakers, and most would accept that the films made between 1932 and 1939 (from Boudu sauve des eaux, that is, to La Regle du jeu) consist of his best work and some of the best work ever committed to the screen.

Indeed, Renoir's pre-war films were received, upon re-release, with an enthusiasm they had rarely received the first time around. This was particularly true of what, along with La Grande illusion (1937), many today consider his very best work: La Regle du jeu (1939). It had initially been attacked by hostile Parisians as frivolous, clumsy, and downright incomprehensible, yet La Regle du jeu (The Rule[s] of the Game) is now generally regarded as a masterpiece. (2) There is a strange side to the film, however. What most critics and reference books say concerning it--and they tend to say much the same thing--does not, to put it bluntly, square with the facts.

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Let me quote from Peter France's New Oxford Companion to Literature in French (1995): La Regle du jeu is "about an aristocratic house-party that is a microcosm of the corruptness and exhaustion of French society on the eve of World War II." (3) Here is Philip Kemp, in the liner notes to the 2003 BFI DVD of the film: "The seemingly elegant, old-world gathering is riven with rancour and hatreds, social, political, and racial. The rules of the game are designed to exclude those who fail to grasp the unspoken assumptions behind them." (4) According to Celia Bertin, in her biography lean Renoir: A Life in Pictures (1991), Renoir "wanted to tell the story of people dancing on a volcano.... He knew that the slaughter of rabbits and pheasants prefigures the death of men. War was inevitable, and he was thinking about it all the time now. …

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