As the arts begin to capture our time of economic, religious, and political confusion, perhaps it is time to remember the rules of the game.
Specifically, Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, La Règle du Jeu. Renoir reveals how the world really works, for better or worse; and, what it costs an artist to be the voice of revelation.
In 1962, Renoir provided a filmed introduction to La Règle du Jeu (translated here from The Criterion Collection’s box set of the film, commentary, and specials):
I am very pleased to talk about The Rules of the Game because of all the movies I’ve made, it was clearly the biggest failure.
When The Rules of the Game first came out, it was a great blow. I’ve received a few blows in my life, but never one like that. It was complete and resounding.
One day not too long ago, I was introducing The Rules of the Game for an audience of young people at a school in New York. Some of these young people had heard about The Rules of the Game and about the reception it encountered in Paris. One of them asked me, “Could you tell me, Mr. Renoir, why this movie is considered ‘controversial’?” (I’m using the English word “controversial”, which I’m translating poorly into French.) I answered him, “This movie could be considered controversial for the following reason: At the movie’s premiere at the Colisée, I saw one gentleman in the audience very solemnly unfold a newspaper, take out a matchbox, strike a match and light the newspaper with the obvious intention of setting the room on fire. I think any movie that provokes a reaction like that is controversial.”
I made this “controversial” movie in 1938-39. In no way was it my intention to make a controversial film. It was not at all my intention to shock the bourgeoisie. I just wanted to make a movie, even a pleasant movie, but a pleasant movie that would at the same time function as a critique of a society I considered rotten to the core and which I still consider rotten to the core. Because this society continues in its rottenness and is leading us towards some fine little catastrophes.
That being said, in The Rules of the Game, since I wanted the movie to be pleasant, I found inspiration in an author who is a delightful person — someone it’s impossible not to like on a very basic level. I was inspired by Musset and The Moods of Marianne. But very loosely. The resemblance is quite tenuous. But there is something reminiscent of The Moods of Marianne in my plot. You always need a springboard, and mine was The Moods of Marianne. The Rules of the Game also arose out of my desire to return to the classical spirit, to leave behind La Bête Humaine and naturalism and even Flaubert. A desire to return to Marivaux, Beaumarchais and Molière. It’s very ambitious, but I’d like to point out, my dear friends, “When choosing masters, it’s best to choose a plump one.”
It doesn’t mean you’re comparing yourself to them. It simply means you’re trying to learn something from them.
I accompanied this attempt to create a classical work with classical music. I had it performed in something of a Commedia dell’Arte fashion — in the fashion of a pantomime. In it I placed some extremely simple characters but who, quite simply, carry their ideas through to their conclusion, who go as far as the development of their thought takes them.
They are frank characters. The portrait of this society, even though it may be a society in decline, makes us love it, at least I hope. Because this society has at least one advantage: It wears no mask.
When The Rules of the Game was presented in 1939 at the Colisée — I told you the story of the gentleman with his newspaper, and a number of people wanted to smash their seats. I went to see this screening, and let me tell you it tears your heart out. You can say you don’t care, but it’s not true — you do care. It’s very upsetting to hear people whistle and hurl insults at you. I was roundly attacked for The Rules of the Game. Oh well. That’s all in the past. And besides, incidentally, I was recently rewarded for it. But the moment hasn’t come to speak of that yet.
What I do want to tell you is that because of the catcalls that tore my heart open, I made many cuts. And that’s why a full and complete version of The Rules of the Game no longer exists. There’s one version left, and I hope that’s the one you’ll see, which is almost complete. It’s been reconstructed through the careful efforts of film technicians who were able to find the negatives, develop them and make a complete copy. In short, they reconstructed the movie. Only one scene is missing from this version, but it’s not important. It’s a scene in which I appear with Roland Toutain and which deals with the sexual exploits of the maids. As you can see, that isn’t a primary theme.
I mentioned that I was rewarded at a later date. In fact, I was in Venice three years ago. The Venice Festival people had the very generous idea of showing this complete version, which had just been reconstructed, in their large theatre one afternoon. I went there, and I was pleased to see a very full house. People were standing or sitting on the steps. These people applauded quite a bit and were very nice. It felt a bit like payback for the insults of 1939.
From Renoir’s inspiration, find the humor and strip away the masks. Here’s looking forward to the next artistic work that reveals our time.
- Bill Reichblum