Saying something new and interesting about La Regle du ju (The Rules of the Game) by Jean Renoir (1894–1979) is more than a challenge. Perhaps no film (with the possible exception of Citizen Kane) has been so universally acclaimed by critics of all stripes and persuasions. It is generally well known that the film was almost lost as a result of the outrage it caused when it was released in France on the brink of World War II. Only painstaking restoration efforts since the war enable us to see it today.
The film came at the end of Renoir’s (and perhaps any director’s) most spectacular decade. He had already opened up filmmaking to nature and reality with Boudu Saved from Drowning and A Day in the Country. He had laid the groundwork of Neorealism with Toni. He had probed unexplored psychological depths with La Chienne, La Nuit de Carrefour, The Lower Depths, and La Bête humaine. He had humanized the French Revolution and World War I with La Marseillaise and La Grande illusion. That he was dissatisfied with the existing order should have come as no surprise after Le Crime de M. Lange and Renoir’s flirtation with the French Left. All the while, he was developing throughout the decade a unique and barely visible style of long-takes and deep-focus that, as Andrew Sarris suggests, makes life seem to overflow the frame. Even so, the ferocity of The Rules of the Game coming from the bourgeois son of a highly successful painter caught people off guard.
After production started, Renoir was reportedly distressed by the performance of Nora Gregor in the female lead. (Hers is a fascinating story of Jewish ancestry, marriage to an Austrian Fascist, and exile in South America, where she ultimately committed suicide.) He rewrote her part and made himself an onscreen metteur-en-scène. He had acted in a number of his earlier films, most notably, of course, A Day in the Country, in which he comes across as the jovial bear of a man whom my erstwhile colleague, Eileen Bowser, recalled from a visit to the Museum. It is apt that Renoir selected this as his outfit for the costume party in the film. One can only assume that The Rules of the Game captures something of what the director was like in real life, a thinly veiled genius masquerading as a buffoon. I once wrote a piece comparing the seemingly disparate visions of Renoir and Josef von Sternberg, who were both born the same year. Although Sternberg never appeared before the camera, he did not shrink from casting an ironic eye on himself through the performances of Adolphe Menjou in Morocco and Lionel Atwill in The Devil Is a Woman. In the case of both directors, there was a willingness to risk their fragile dignity in the service of their art.
There is something disconcerting about the ruckus caused by La Regle du jeu among the French. Renoir is, after all, the most tolerant and humane of all artists, and his central message is a forgiving one: that everyone has his own reasons for his behavior, no matter how foolish or selfish. Although he retained his love of France and returned there frequently after the war to make films, he made his home in Los Angeles where he and his wife, Dido, had found refuge. The French New Wave directors growing out of the auteurist criticism of Cahiers du cinéma turned their backs on most of their French film heritage, but not on Renoir, who mentored the group along with another Hollywood exile, Alfred Hitchcock.