Home / Chimes at midnight: Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game

Chimes at midnight: Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game

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The Rules of the Game

***** – a masterpiece

Just a few years after Renoir analyzed socioeconomic status with war in his masterwork, The Grand Illusion, he released the highlight of his career and one of the pinnacles of the cinematic artform. The Rules of the Game is even more scathing in its critique of the bourgeoisie of the era – and even more human in its outlook.

Films that find the tragedy in the codes of conduct that society has placed on its differing groups have always been of interest to me. It’s a common theme throughout film history – finding its way in a diverse group of films and expressed in many different ways, from the likes of Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and everything in between. The Rules of the Game wasn’t the first film to tackle the issue – nor is it the most effective – but there is something quite special about it in its narrative technique, and aesthetic beauty.

Renoir must have a made a conscious effort to perfect his craft as a director in the time between The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, as there is no comparison. The film’s beauty shines with bright light, dark shadows, a canvas of deep focus, long takes brilliantly contrasted with quick editing in this film’s famous hunting sequence. It starts with Renoir’s camera brilliantly shifting through a crowd at night (and a memorable brief shot of a plane whizzing through the night sky), and ends at night with scenes of mystic beauty and tragedy outside of the estate, in the woods and on the steps.

Renoir historian Christopher Faulkner noted Renoir’s usage of light and dark to convey what is lurking underneath the rules that bind the characters. Unlike the general perception society has placed on it, light contains scenes of constraint – while dark allows honesty and feeling to bleed through. Renoir essentially breaks a real-life “rule” over the perception of light, and the absence of it, with his film. It is when it is dark that the humanity of his characters becomes evident.

The Rules of the Game fittingly (and ironically) follows a rule of two throughout. Characters often relate in a series of couples, there is interaction and separation between the upper and lower classes, intimate shots reveal true feelings and far away signifies performance, the above notion of light and dark, and the film’s status as a comedy and a drama. Through his structuring of doubles, Renoir’s film remains one of the most profound on desire, class and the sheer beauty and tragedy of film and the human experience.

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  • It is a masterpiece of cinema that I never tire of watching, thanks to the richness of the script, the immaculate performances by Marcel Dalio, Roland Toutain, Nora Gregor and Renoir himself, one remarkable scene after another — my favorite being that glorious “Danse Macabre” — and the effortless glide of Renoir’s direction, going from comedy of manners to sex romp to farce to, finally, death.