Here’s a transcript of an introduction I did for a screening of Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu.
Often cited as the greatest French film of all time, and a regular fixture in the top half of the Sight & Sound top ten, La règle du jeu is as perfect a place to begin as anywhere when it comes to exploring this particular area of the French cinema (the period that led up to the Nouvelle Vague).
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for La règle du jeu. Upon its initial release in 1939 the film was condemned for its humourous portrayal of high society, and banned under the French – Vichy government for being “demoralizing”. It wasn’t until 20 years later that the complete film was restored.
Its perhaps appropriate that the film was reevaluted on the cusp of the 1960’s, upon the dawn of the success of the new wave. This is the oldest film by some margin that we’re screening this semester, but it doesn’t feel it. “Ahead of it’s time” is a description often reeled out, but, and this is meant without too much hyperbole, it’s never been more appropriate than here. It’s also worth noting that Jean Renoir was one of the few figures from the golden age of French cinema to actually be praised by the filmmakers of the cahiers du cinema.
As is made clear in the opening moments of La règle du jeu, Renoir understands the human condition in a manner quite like no other filmmaker, using it to draw the viewer into his work on a heavily affectionate level. This can be seen through much of his work, be it in the flawed protagonist of La Bête Humaine, or in the admiring lothario in Partie de campagne, but it’s no greater encapsulated than here, in the opening moments of La règle du jeu.
The usual Renoir-isms are all present and correct. The film is sexually daring, and incredibly witty. Concepts of class, which is perhaps Renoir’s most recurrent theme, is never any more prominent than it is in this film. We see class tackled from many angles and pretty much every perspective, from the hired help right up to the highest quarters of French aristocracy. Class, and discussions of class, is the source of pretty much every dramatic development within the film.
Renoir talked about putting everything that crossed his path in to his work. Everything, he said, be it intentional or not, formed some part of the artist’s psyche, and comes together to build the man that made the film. This is something that we will be discussing at length next week, but it’s worth noting that here Renoir quite literally places himself inside of the work. Through his turn as Octave, Renoir acts as some kind of deus-ex-machina; He plays god, orchestrating the premise from within the very frames of the movie.
There is a major connection between Renoir’s attitude towards filmmaking and that of those behind the new wave. In Renoir’s mind the artist, the author of the work was key, which obviously brings to mind the likes of Truffaut and Godard. Indeed Renoir himself recognised this similarity, when, at 80 years old and just five years before his death he dedicated his autobiography to “those filmmakers who are known to the public as the ‘new wave’ and whose preoccupations are also mine”.