Released: July 8, 1939
a.k.a.: The Rules of the Game
Director: Jean Renoir; Screenplay: Jean Renoir and Carl Koch; Cinematography: Jean-Paul Alphen and Jean Bachelet; Studio: Nouvelle edition française; Producer: Claude Renoir
Cast: Roland Toutain (André Jurieu), Marcel Dalio (Robert de la Chesnaye), Nora Gregor (Christine de la Chesnaye), Mila Parèly (Genevieve de Marrast), Jean Renoir (Octave), Julien Carette (Marceau), Gaston Modot (Schumacher), Paulette Dubost (Lisette)
I can’t help but chuckle at the fact that in what is widely considered to be the greatest year in the history of Hollywood cinema, the two films that I could not choose between in making my selection for the best of 1939 are both French! While I have expanded my horizons over recent years, I am still admittedly pretty Hollywood-centric in a lot of my viewing, and I even warned in my opening statement to this countdown that it’s possible that American films could dominate for stretches. There are certainly many, many worthy candidates to choose from in the batch of films released in the United States this year – movies that would top the lists of many other years in the countdown. There were legitimately 8-10 movies that I considered choosing this year and think that any of that group would have been reasonable selections. But in revisiting some of these classics and trying to make sense of how to rank them, two French gems began to emerge as leaders.
The first is among the “usual suspects” of any list of the greatest films of 1939. The Rules of the Game is sometimes even referred to as the greatest film ever made. I personally don’t go quite that far, but it’s an outstanding film. The other is the less well-known, but equally superb Le jour se lève (or Daybreak, its English title). Being familiar with the work of director Marcel Carné only from his renowned 1945 effort Children of Paradise, this is a film that I saw for the first time only recently. It exceeded any expectations I had going in, quite easily eclipsing the experience I previously had with Children of Paradise. It stars Jean Gabin as a blue-collar factory worker who has just killed a man. After seeing the slaying committed in the opening moments, the story unfolds through a number of flashbacks as the killer holes up in his apartment and recounts what has led him to murder. It truly is a great film, one that appears to be somewhat underappreciated, and for a while I thought that it would by me choice as the top film of 1939.
Then I watched The Rules of the Game again. While I have had friends and acquaintances refer to it as the “chic choice” among cineastes, the excellence of the film is undeniable. Reputation and historical impact aside, this film is simply a pleasure to watch. After seeing it again, I realized that as much as I love Daybreak (and Gone With the Wind, and Ninotchka, and The Roaring Twenties, and… you get the picture!), I simply could not pick against this Jean Renoir masterpiece.
In approaching a review of The Rules of the Game, I’ve wondered what I could possibly add to the volumes that have already addressed its greatness. I have no illusions of producing a groundbreaking assessment – my writing and understanding of film in general does not even approach the level of being able to do so. Still, I think the perspective that I can give to a film like this can be interesting, as I’m not so much interested in technical innovations or influence on future films and directors. It has been so praised and lauded over the last seventy years, it’s easy to sometimes view it the way one would an exhibit in a museum. But watching it proves that it is still so much more than that. I’m looking at it strictly as a film, one that I want to entertain and excite me. It not only succeeds in this regard, but does so amazingly.
At its core, the film is a satirical look at French high society and the absurd customs and rules followed by everyone in hopes of fitting in. Famed aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) is an outsider in this environment, venturing on the weekend retreat because he wishes to win the heart of Christine (Nora Gregor). Complicating this affair is the fact that the owner of the La Colinière estate is Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), Christine’s husband. They are joined by a cast of other aristocratic characters – Octave (Jean Renoir), André’s friend who also happens to be in love with Christine. Also there for the weekend is Geneviève de Marras, the married mistress of Robert. Robert is trying desperately to break things off with Geneviève, realizing that failure to do so could push Christine right into André’s arms.
Equally interesting is the parallel storyline of the intrigues surrounding the lives of the servants and household help. Christine’s personal servant Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is married to the groundskeeper of the estate, Schumacher (Gaston Modot). The two spend much time apart as Lisette attends to Christine and Schumacher remains on the country estate. The relationship is further complicated when local vagabond Marceau (Julien Carette) is hired as a servant and begins to pursue a surreptitious romance with Lisette.
If you think all of the love triangles and deceptions sound like the makings of a soap opera, you’re right. Renoir uses these situations to make a mockery of the lives of the characters. One need only witness the famed hunting scene, in which the guests go on a group hunt of birds and rabbits, to see the disdain felt toward such a setting. The aristocrats are depicted as being just short of bloodthirsty, callously shooting at anything that the servants manage to steer into the line of fire. At the same time, it is interesting to note how he highlights the different reactions between the “upper” and “lower” societies is dealing with the romantic squabbles. Upon discovering his wife getting cozy with another man, the servant Schumacher understandably flies off the handle and sets about ending it. The aristocrats like Robert and Christine, meanwhile, seem to want to ignore the issue and pretend as if it isn’t happening. It is an interesting juxtaposition.
The thing that amazed me the first time I watched this film is how funny it could be. For whatever reason, foreign-language comedies have always been hard for me to get into. I can’t pinpoint exactly why this was the case – I suppose some of the humor can be lost in the translation? – but this film shattered that myth in my movie-watching. The conclusions to the various strands of the plot actually turn quite tragic, but the movie manages to retain certain lightheartedness throughout. It is definitely not a comedy the entire way through, but there are scenes that are simply hilarious. The dinner scene at the end of the film never ceases to make me smile. It is complete chaos, both among the guests and the servants, and it’s impossible not to laugh as the various squabbles descend into still further pandemonium.
There are outstanding individual performances in this film – I think that Renoir is excellent as the affable Octave and that Julian Carette is terrific as the scheming Marceau – but it is the collaborative effort that propels this film. The entire group that goes on the weekend retreat is interesting and entertaining, with not a bum performance among the entire cast. Renoir’s direction is impressive without being ostentatious. The camera movements throughout the estate are smooth, allowing the viewer to simply take in the commotion throughout the property. His use of deep focus has been widely celebrated and although I’m not a technical guru or one that is qualified to pass judgment on more technical aspects of film, it is certainly used effectively.
The reaction at the premiere of this film was apparently one of indignation, as the upper class that Renoir so splendidly lampooned did not take the joke very well. In hindsight, I would think that such a reaction would be understandable, but it is a shame that it resulted in the film being banned in France. It has obviously come to be appreciated as the masterwork that it is. Films that have built reputations as lofty as this can sometimes disappoint when finally viewed, but The Rules of the Game does not. It is just an enjoyable experience all the way around.
Rating: 9/10 (This rating is based purely on personal taste/enjoyment – I can’t give everything a 10/10! Or at least I try not to… If it were a rating of “greatness” it would definitely get a perfect score.)
Other Contenders for 1939: Wow, so many films that one could say are the best of 1939 and I wouldn’t argue. As I said at the beginning of this review, Carné’s Le jour se lève came very close to being my selection. Gabin is great as usual and Carné brilliantly crafts a dark tale. Then there is the roll call of great Hollywood films of this year, which is deep. Victor Fleming’s adaptation of Gone With the Wind can be a very polarizing film. I know many cineastes whose opinions I respect that cannot stand the film. I know others who adore it. I’m more in the adoration camp. I think it excels when it embraces the reputation of the sweeping epic it is billed as, as opposed to attempts at more intimate scenes. I would also guess that Fleming’s other blockbuster of this year, The Wizard of Oz, would be a favorite of a lot of people. Even as a child, however, I never cared for it. In fact, I’ve been told many times that I was the only kid anyone had ever met who did not like The Wizard of Oz! My feelings now are similar to when I was young.
I think that Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka is hilarious, with the caricature portrayals of Soviets only adding to the humor in the film. I’ve found that watching any Lubitsch film leaves a smile on my face the whole way through. I’ve already made my feelings of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties known and I still think it’s among the best of the classic Hollywood gangster films. Stagecoach is the first film in John Ford’s catalog that I would dare label as great. He also released Young Mr. Lincoln this year, and while I’m not nearly as big a fan of it as Stagecoach, it is one that should be seen. Only Angels Have Wings is Howard Hawks in top form and contains possibly my favorite Cary Grant performance. There are many great Hawks films in the decades that would follow, but many still cite this film as their favorite in the director’s filmography. Wuthering Heights is another film that I actually had not seen until recently, but it too is excellent. William Wyler is a director that I find myself liking more with each film I see and Wuthering Heights continues this trend.
This is really only the tip of the iceberg. There are still more films to cherish from this year – Destry Rides Again is always fun, as is Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers and George Stevens’ Gunga Din. I also recently watched Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums for the first time, but am still somewhat undecided on how I feel about it. It’s feels like one that needs to be watched again to fully take in.