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FILM / Director's Cut: Bertrand Tavernier on La Regle du jeu

JEAN RENOIR'S 'La Regle du jeu' was ridiculed by critics on its original release in 1939. Restored and re-released in 1959, it was hailed as his masterpiece.

'What I adore in La Regle du jeu is the tremendous sense of freedom. Freedom towards the plot, which Renoir keeps breaking with scenes that would normally be considered unimportant. Freedom with the tone of the film, which is constantly shifting from comedy to drama, from social satire to tragedy to a kind of lyrical, but very sharp, examination of French society. It's like a music box playing in what should have become a mass grave.

'Freedom in the way he approaches the characters, who are always strongly seen but never judged. And a wonderful freedom of style - you never know what will be at the end of a tracking shot. You discover something and then the camera goes on and you discover something else. It's very modern. The opening scene, where you see a number of guests arriving at the chateau, is like a Robert Altman film, with people talking, overlapping within the shot, and a wonderful depth of focus. I'd give the whole of Citizen Kane for a shot like that.

'You can see all this in the famous scene where the cook talks about potatoes. It's a long, lateral tracking shot during which you examine the different attitudes of all the servants. Most of them imitate the bad things about their masters; they are mean and envious, and as prejudiced as, perhaps even more prejudiced than, the aristocrats towards the Marcel Dalio character because he is Jewish. The film doesn't show us an image of the good proletariat.

'Then, coming from the back of the image towards the camera, you see the cook arriving to interrupt the discussion. He supports Dalio, saying, 'Perhaps he's not a real aristocrat, but he sure knows how a potato salad should look - he knows that the vinegar has to be put on the potatoes while they are still hot. For that, I respect him more than the real aristocrats who talk about food all the time and know nothing about it.'

'It's such an unexpected defence of somebody. It contains a lot of things that Jean Renoir might say himself: that it's not the image or the social position of a person which counts, but knowing the little things of life like how to put the vinegar on a hot potato. And it's great to have Dalio defended by someone who is not his friend. It's dramatically more interesting and funnier and very true to life. It has both a specific sense and a very moral sense. Everyone sees the meaning of La Regle du jeu as expressed in the hunting party scene, but we aren't even sure that Renoir shot it; it may have been a second unit director. For me, the meaning of the film is in every scene.

'Renoir proved that he can be a virtuoso director without ever becoming a slave to technique. There is never any real centre in the image; he sacrifices formal composition to life and the unexpected. He likes to film in master shots in a single take, without cutting to focus on a particular character. He avoids the feeling that makes some films seem very old-fashioned - the use of a long shot broken by close-ups that don't match in terms of speed or atmosphere. It seems now that so many films are shot like TV movies - you only have one character on the screen at a time.

'Directors like Renoir or Ozu had more confidence in the audience than directors have today. Now the plot seems to overcome everything. Renoir never underlines a scene; you have the impression that he's exploring the characters along with you. He's one of the most democratic directors.'

'La Regle du jeu' is available on Connoisseur Video. Bertrand Tavernier's films include 'Sunday in the Country', 'Coup de Torchon', 'Life and Nothing But', 'Round Midnight' and 'L 627'. His film 'These Foolish Things' is released on video by Gala on 6 April. Tavernier's diary of the filming of 'L 627' is published in 'Projections 2' (Faber and Faber, pounds 9.99).

(Photograph omitted)