During the First World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German POW camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from.
A charismatic thief makes friends with a bankrupt baron who comes to live in the thief's slum. Meanwhile the thief seeks the love of a young woman, who is held emotionally captive by her slumlord family.
A small-time thief steals a car and impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy.
Aviator André Jurieux has just completed a record-setting flight, but when he is greeted by an admiring crowd, all he can say to them is how miserable he is that the woman he loves did not come to meet him. He is in love with Christine, the wife of aristocrat Robert de la Cheyniest. Robert himself is involved in an affair with Geneviève de Marras, but he is trying to break it off. Meanwhile, André seeks help from his old friend Octave, who gets André an invitation to the country home where Robert and Christine are hosting a large hunting party. As the guests arrive for the party, their cordial greetings hide their real feelings, along with their secrets - and even some of the servants are involved in tangled relationships. Written by
Jean Renoir is often considered as one of the masters of French cinema of the thirties. He surprised in the diversity of the genres he tackled during that era: literary adaptation (Madame Bovary, 1933), entertaining comedy (Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux, 1932) or political manifestation (la Marseillaise, 1937). Perhaps more than "la Grande Illusion" (1937), "la Règle Du Jeu" is the magnum opus of that era and perhaps of Renoir's whole career. A movie offering a great variety of tones and a liberty of style which looks like a light comedy but which conceals delicate topics. Given that it was a mirror of French society, it encompassed an unusual construction, a highly worked and unconventional directing, it is easy to understand why the movie was decried by French public in 1939. Throughout the years, it was butchered, was cut several times before fortunately being restored to favor in 1965.
Renoir had developed in some of his anterior films a scathing critic of French bourgeoisie. Movies like "Nana" (1926), "la Chienne" (1931) or "Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux" (1932) already embodied a wholesale massacre of the upper-class milieu whom Renoir underscored their hypocritical aspect. "La Règle Du Jeu" is his last attack on this society. The filmmaker understood that it was impossible to change the aristocratic world and its shallow rules. The tail end is here to prove it. Robert De la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) by qualifying Jurieu's death as a "deplorable accident" whereas it was a premeditated murder saved the appearances. But Renoir also knew that the Second World War was about to break out and was going to put an end to the aristocratic domination. So, he felt that it was his duty to give a true image of French bourgeoisie before the tragedy.
Renoir's magnum opus is an innovative film because the director did the opposite of what a majority of French filmmakers did at that time. Many of Renoir's French peers relished on Hollywood conventions to tell and shoot the stories of their films. Here, the movie isn't built from one character's standpoint but from a group of characters belonging to different social classes, a scheme which was unusual in the thirties. Renoir used this device for a better observation of French society in decay and he was audacious enough to break the rules of narrative continuity and to use a complex directing. For example, he had tapped the depth of field in his wondrous "Partie De Campagne" (1936), here, he used it again with startling results to create memorable images, notably during the party sequence.
Renoir knew very well the aristocratic world he described in his film because he used to belong to it. He was the son of the famous French impressionist painter, Auguste Renoir. An important part of the film takes place in "la Colinière", a mansion which seems to be virtually cut off from the world, it's the sole world which exists. "La Règle Du Jeu" represents a world with a constricting etiquette, immutable values. Two camps: the smug, posh bourgeoisie and the servants. Its members are walled up in their respective social background and the two most important criteria of distinction are money and property. Apart this hard-hitting assessment, Renoir's genius shines when it comes to underline their mediocrity and lack of education. Jackie tells Mrs La Bruyère that she studies Pre-Colombian art and the latter assimilates it to Buffalo Bill. Moreover, the "rule" in question is based on lie, hypocrisy and injustice. La Chesnaye has an affair with his mistress Geneviève and his wife Christine ignores this. But the sight at the shooting party is a symbolic object because she makes Christine's eyes open about this illicit love affair. But perhaps the most powerful symbol of this society is the automatons. They are clockwork toys just like the rules, the manners which govern an ossified world. Then if Jurieu died at the end of the film, it's because he remained honest in a world of corruption.
Although there are no direct references to war, there are veiled hints at it throughout Renoir's work. Of course, the famous hunting sequence was often interpreted as warning signs to the tragedy, but also during the party with the "danse macabre", the way the audience reacts: a mirror of French society about the impending tragedy which weighs like a Sword of Damoclès and the military capacities of French army. But there another allusions to war elsewhere in Renoir's work: the tolling of the bells when the guests arrive to la Colinière, the gun shots La Chesnaye can hear when he walks in his domain, his gamekeeper Schmacher's persona... Moreover, there are clear signs that this society is in poor running, notably during the party sequence. The frontier between masters and servants is abolished. An impression of disorder is enhanced by an astute use of the depth of field and long takes during which several actions take place in the same time. Then, Christine who will think of fleeing from this rotten microcosm. But, in the end, La Chesnaye will have saved the appearances. But for how long?
Every sequence, every character of "la Règle Du Jeu" should be studied in detail. It's an unqualified must for any cine buff. The technical innovations will have an influence on future directors like François Truffaut while the bourgeois satire will be later resumed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Claude Chabrol.
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