CINEMA; A very big house in the country

'La Regle du Jeu' is one of the greatest hits of cinema's century. As Jean Renoir's masterpiece returns, David Thomson explains the rules of 'The Rules of the Game'
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The Independent Culture
1 "Rules are for the insecure, the hopeful, the law and the outlaws - without rules those fellows could not hide from their true nature, that of lost souls."

- proverb, Chinese (Chifu area)

2 La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), a motion picture of 113 minutes and 337 shots, in black and white; shooting commenced 15 February 1939; film premiered 7 July 1939; three weeks later, withdrawn; October, banned by French government as "demoralising"; restored version shown in September 1959, Venice Festival.

3 Directed and co-written by Jean Renoir (but the writing credit is also shared with the film's actors).

4 See the film before reading any further: it opens in London in a new print on Friday.

5 It is a picture that works through ironic contrasts - but then reveals that irony is no answer or cure for their damage. Thus, the epigraph, from Beaumarchais's The Marriage of Figaro, urges us not to condemn infidelity, or the volatility of love - after all, if Cupid is a winged creature, isn't that so he may fly away again to find someone new? Whereupon, in the action of the film, a heroic flier lands at Le Bourget aerodrome. He is Andre Jurieu (Roland Toutain), and he has just flown the Atlantic, alone, in 23 hours. Is he elated? No, he has never been so disappointed in his life, for he hoped to be met by a woman. But she is not there.

6 Instead, he is met by Octave (Jean Renoir), his friend, a large, untidy, ebullient man of no means, yet an asset to his privileged social circle because of his wit, his good nature, his availability, and his usefulness as a connection and a messenger.

7 The film cuts to the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), husband to the woman Jurieu wanted to see at the aerodrome. Robert de la Chesnaye is an aristocrat, but he is also an outsider: he is Jewish. Dalio normally played underworld figures. Robert is a muddle: he loves his wife, Christine (Nora Gregor), and his mistress, Genevieve (Mila Parely).

8 Octave calls on Robert and Christine. His mission is to get them both to agree that Jurieu may be a guest at a forthcoming weekend in the country. Octave has known Christine since childhood when her father was an orchestral conductor in Vienna - Octave wanted to conduct, too, but lacked the talent or the determination. So now he is like the conductor on the train for his friends. He persuades Christine. He persuades Robert, in part because, joking, he offers to take Genevieve off his hands. Robert says he really loves and wants his wife, but he hates to be controlling. In affairs of the heart, people have to be free, without barriers or fences.

9 Genevieve observes that "in society, love is the exchange of two fantasies, and the coming together of two epidermises". Not the least irony of the film is its delight in surfaces, skin, faces and eyes, and the deeper realisation that behind the eyes there are hopes, fears, ideas we never quite know. So this is a film about the clash of liberty and openness with solitude and fate. Does human interaction mend that clash, or make it worse?

10 The story moves to the country, to a chateau in the Sologne area, in the Loire valley, east of Tours. The weather there is uncertain: we feel damp in the air and frost in the ground, things that the pale sun cannot heal. The exteriors were shot there, but the chateau interiors were designed and built by Eugene Lourie at a studio in Paris.

11 In the country, we meet the servants and we recognise twin triangles of romantic intrigue:

Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is Christine's maid; Schumacher (Gaston Modot), Lisette's husband, is gamekeeper on the country estate; Marceau (Julien Carette) is a poacher, Schumacher's plague, who flirts with Lisette. There is a physical and emotional resemblance between Robert and Marceau - small, dark, shy, humorous, wry - no matter that Marceau steals Robert's livestock.

12 The mirroring of servants and masters comes from Beaumarchais, and Mozart, and alerts us to such 18th-century ploys as mistaken identity, eavesdropping (though in this film it is visual and involves a telescope) and the perilous proximity of farce and tragedy.

13 Throughout, there is a contrast between soft, vulnerable, impetuous creatures and machines - the plane that crossed the Atlantic, a car that crashes because its driver can't concentrate. In the country, the role of the machine is filled by the musical toys Robert collects and a player piano. And guns. These machines build a frenzy and automatism that make people seem more helpless.

14 The most emphatic example of this is the "shoot" in which the members of the house party massacre the wildlife on the estate. This extraordinary sequence is not typical of Renoir, for it is a savage, perfect montage of shooting and its impact, a barrage of quick, short shots, a kind of auto-da-fe, is delivered without any observation or comment except that of style.

15 The second auto-da-fe is far more complex. It is the mounting disorder of the house party, as the triangles interact. This is Renoir's most superb and characteristic piece of film, for all depends on long takes, depth of focus, a moving camera, the interaction of many people who are always seeing one another. The feeling is hilarious, but desperate and dangerous, for the farce risks going out of control. The sequence is like a dance: the arrangement of movements, people and views is very beautiful and seemingly designed; yet it is also spontaneous, lethal and actually made up out of improvisations in rehearsal. The contrast here between form/rules and human liberty is intense and intricate and repays endless viewings. The only rule can be that there are no rules.

16 The spiral explodes. There is no need to spell out the ending, or its disaster. Some surprise must be retained. Suffice it to say that it owes itself to Octave's belated attempt to be more than just the go-between (or the director) for his friends. He wants to be a player in the game itself, not just its link or spectator. As such, this is the clearest model of Renoir's notion of theatre as a metaphor for life.

17 As the film opened, France found itself at war. The film's reception was not just miserable, but hostile, as if somehow the very vulnerable French felt they had been attacked. Renoir was stung and disappointed. He said he believed he should give up France or give up cinema. But there is another impulse behind his solution to that problem. Jean Renoir's private life was as muddled as that of any of the people at the country- house party. He had been married once, to Catherine Hessling, the last great model of his father, the painter. Hessling, who was also an actress, played in some of Jean's early films. They had a son, Alain, born in 1921. They separated in 1930 (but were not divorced). By 1932, Jean was living with his editor, Marguerite Houlle. Politically of the left, Houlle was his editor all through the 1930s. She took the name Renoir, but they could not be married. She edited everything up to and including La Regle du Jeu, and was evidently a very valuable influence during this rich period. But on La Regle, also, Renoir had a new script-girl, Dido Freire. It was with her that he went to America (they arrived there on 31 December 1940). He married Dido in 1944 - though the divorce from Catherine had never taken place. This story - later called an "error" by Renoir, and a reason why he never fully returned to France - shows the extent to which he was himself a member of the group in La Regle du Jeu. Every heart has its reasons, and ways of finding wings to fly away.

18 Begin to see the film regularly.

! 'La Regle du Jeu' (PG) opens at the Riverside Studios, W6 (0181 741 2255) on Fri.