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About this sample
Words: 2887 |
15 min read
Published: Aug 4, 2023
Words: 2887|Pages: 6|15 min read
In 1934, Depression put a shroud on the thriving large-scale French film production that had “begun with sound and the stock market crash” (Brooks, 1971, 265), paving the way for experimental independent filmmakers to find their niche to thrive. Jean Renoir, one of the most renowned French filmmakers whose work is exemplar of French poetic realism, made The Rules of the Game in 1939 when reality consisted of the threat of the Nazis, the Munich agreement, bankruptcy of the Third Republic, and the crumbling of the Popular Front. Questions reflecting the impending doom of World War II, and doubting the strength of France to defend itself from Nazi invasion thus formulated into the film, The Rules of the Game which presents a scathing, satirical critique of the bourgeois and aristocrats of French society that as per Renoir weakened France from within through corruption and lies. Upon its release the film was met with scorn and negativity, with many attempts to burn copies of the film, and bans inflicted by both the French government as well as the Nazi rulers later due to the film’s critical view of the upper class. Via this comedy of manners set at a week-long house party, Renoir attempts to paint a chaotic picture of the hypocritical and superficial “rules” that French upper class folks create and adhere to. These rules embody the conflicting and dramatic elements of theater and thereby create blurred lines between illusion and reality. The mise en scène of the film, moreover, builds on this illusion of affluence and peace at the chateau where intertwined, complex love triangles come to party as they put on a play for entertainment and joy for the guests. Both theater and mise en scène in The Rules of the Game, hence, reflect and embody French poetic realism and French national identity at the brink of war.
Whether it is Renoir’s adaptation of plays onto the big screen in films as early as Tire au flanc (Renoir, 1928), his later composition of the stage play Orvet (Renoir, 1955), or the blurring distinction and constant switching between theatre and life in Le Carrosse d’or (Renoir, 1953)—theater sustains as an unabating and recurrent thematic element running through a variety of Renoir’s body of works (Travers, 2017, 1). La règle du jeu or The Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939) too has a centripetal focus on plays, acts, and theater. The film is not only the modification of playwright Alfred de Musset’s 1833 work Les Caprices de Marianne, but also the integration of an entertaining play put on at Marquis de la Chesnaye’s chateau into the main plot of the film thereby rendering The Rules of the Game as an intrinsic aggregation of theatrics to portray deeper themes.
Specifically in The Rules of the Game, theater is employed as a tool to reflect French national identity of the time in a light-hearted yet critical manner. Shot between the Munich Agreement and World War II, The Rules of the Game attempts to record an impression of the notion of restrictive class distinctions that fractured French society from within, leaving it vulnerable to Nazi control. At the time of its production, Renoir was “very upset by the state of mind of a part of French society, of a part of English society, of a part of world society” and “one way to present the world’s state of mind would be… to tell a light story” (Renoir, 1966, 190) rather than directly talk about its issues. This paved the way for the film’s dramatic portrayal of the illusory world of falsehood that dictated the affluent circles of France at the time. For instance, at the chateau Christine calls for everyone’s attention to make a confession about her relationship to André Jurieu. The Marquis in the backdrop appears visibly anxious as he bites his nails during what he fears to be a truthful public exposition of André and Christine’s affair – in contrast to his unbothered reaction to the same news in private. However, as soon as Christine states that the part she played in André’s exploit was that of just a friend, Robert smirks in relief and even declares a party in celebration (“We’ll put on a big show,” exclaims Robert). Thus, the “confession” appears to be nothing but a performance put on by Christine to create a farce of friendship between André and her in order to reiterate her primary role as Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye’s wife in the public eye. Later, before wishing Christine goodnight, Robert expresses his gratitude to Christine for handling the situation well. In fact as he tells her, “You were admirable. My compliments,” it almost seems like he is congratulating an actor for their stellar, convincing performance in front of an audience. The sustenance of this social-construct of the affluent class is thus dependent on its members’ continued adherence to its rules and its pretense, most frequently at the expense of the innocent (which in this case is André’s pure love for Christine). To emphasize this point, the General shares with Octave that her “confession” confirmed “[his] opinion that [their] little Chistine has class; and that’s a rare thing nowadays.” This comment could be interpreted as the desires of those well established within these class separations to maintain and secure the longevity of their comfort by encouraging and looking up to those who continue to put up the façade of order and nobility; that is, those who have “class.” Therefore, the necessity to play one’s part in the constricted bourgeois society or to play by the rules of this culture indicates the bubble in which the upper class folks comfortably yet nervously reside in, since this bubble could burst anytime. The need to maintain this public image drives the vanity and masquerade of the rich circles within the larger society. Whoever plays this game differently and deviates from their designated part or act loses such as André who is eventually killed by his self-righteousness and divergence from the moral corruption that infected the people at the chateau. In a France that let its true heroes, its André Jurieu’s die in order to save the corrupted ruling class and its need to put on a “show” at all times, there seemed to be no hope for winning against the imminent Nazi threat as per Renoir. Thus, France’s defeated and corrupted domestic image at the brink of war in 1939 is displayed via the performance of theater in the film.
This theatrical nature of Renoir’s films also bleeds into its illustration of French poetic realism as a mode of representation. In fact, in preparation for the production of The Rules of the Game, Renoir expressed that he reread the dramatic pieces of Alfred de Musset and Pierre de Marivaux in order to “establish a style, halfway between a certain realism … and a certain poetry” (Renoir, 1990, 4). A historical document stylized in a lyrical approach, The Rules of the Game bridges the gap between the film and the viewer by enabling the perception of life through the camera lens. The deep focus shots that navigate different perspectives without editorial cuts put the audience at the center of an auditorium watching a play unfold in front of their eyes. In the sequence, where the gamekeeper Edouard Schumacher hunts Marceau throughout the chateau with his gun, the viewer transmutes into a human observer within this theatrical film who devours their eyes on the convoluted action taking place at the party. The deep depth of field, therefore, creates dimensionality and a sense of realism; that is, the illusion that not much of the film formulates behind post-production editing. Further, the panning shots emulate the eyes by following conflicting and simultaneous fights between the upper class and lower class love triangles respectively; the tracking shots, on the other hand, transport viewers from one place to another like the servants at the chateau trying to locate and stop the gamekeeper—all of these create a rich sense of realism and the camera’s fluidity adds to its poeticism. In addition, the film is thematically congruent with French poetic realism too as it tells a fatalist narrative of the contradictions of living in a social class without any analysis of the situation it paints a picture of. It simply depicts the confusion of class demarcations and the plight of those living at the margins of society. It may be inferred that this style of filmmaking draws upon Shakespearean tragedies in that its heroic figure dies due to his character “flaw” of not following the rules of the class-based society. The flaw taking the shape of the character’s innocence becomes the point of ironic commentary on 1930s French society that thrives on a system designed to benefit the corrupt. Renoir also employs theatrics in the amalgamation of certain pieces of dialogue that act as explicit social commentary on French life—Octave tells Christine that “today everybody lies” including “pharmaceutical flyers, governments, the radio, the movies, the newspapers,” thereby justifying the simple lies they tell each other. This is a self-reflexive statement as it highlights the lie-drenched lives of the aristocrats who maintain a supposed appearance of order at all times. In addition, when the guests of chateau at the party in Tyrolean costumes sing an old patriotic army song, their mockery of the army, “brutally reveals the willful blindness and frantic need for diversion that characterize a disillusioned and skeptical bourgeoisie” (Joly and Conrad, 1967-68, 3). Thus, theater and poetic realism coexist and support one another in The Rules of the Game.
Moreover, an aesthetic device that enriches the theatrical aspects of Renoir’s highly stylized films is mise en scène. Leon Barsacq rightly states that film decor is 'a discreet character, yet also the director's most devoted accomplice’ (Mccann, 2004, 375). The décor in Renoir’s films thus, like 1930s French set design is “inherently performative” (Mccann, 2004, 375) as it interacts with the individual characters so as to create a mutual network of complex emotions that are communicated to the audiences. However, in and of itself “the landscapes serve no purpose on the screen” (Renoir, 1990, 196). Indeed, the character and the mise en scène are interwoven in ways that they each lose meaning without the other. Dalio (who plays Marquis de La Chesnaye) adds that it was the painted chateaus in the backdrop of theater performances that first drew him to acting, and not the real chateaus. Hence it is in the interaction of the background and the actors in The Rules of the Game and the immersion of the characters in the environment that defines the meaning created by their cohesion, rather than their individual realistic value.
The mise en scène of The Rules of the Game especially reinforces the French national identity at the moment in time when the film was released. The chateau initially represents the image of France that the bourgeois and the government wish to believe and propagate as the symbol of stability for the rest of the world including its own citizens. Secluded in a vast, rich luxury, this chateau has its lower-class servants working harmoniously for the ruling masters and everyone lives happily within their own classified closed groups. The poorer folks use their beating sticks to chase the game towards the armed aristocrats who mercilessly and easily kill the game unearthed by the labor of the workers in a display of establishing their dominance above everyone else. However, this aristocracy in the film comes under threat of destruction when the game-keeper’s unmasked emotions formulate into gunshots damaging various material objects in the house – stuffed birds, glassware and a bullet stuck in a door. This scene is brushed off as part of the entertainment for the guests at the party—the guests begin to laugh even as a gun is pointed to their face. This could be inferred as the aristocrats being so disillusioned by the safety of their wealth that they cannot believe that a lower class person could pose an actual threat to their comfort. In fact, in their invariable jumps between thespianism and naturalness they begin to blur the lines of difference distinguishing illusion and reality. The gun held by Schumacher consequently morphs into a symbol of power and disillusionment – when held by the aristocrats, these guns kill the unarmed innocent creatures but even when this power transfers to the common folk it is still somehow the disadvantaged community that suffers. Schumacher shoots Jurieu, just as the hunters shot the rabbit—each time leading to the death of an innocent. The film, using mise en scène, thus also critiques the futility of war. Similarly, as part of damage control at the chateau – without prioritizing the assurance of everyone’s safety at the party – the Marquis laughs off the incident and bids all the guests a warm adieu as if nothing had gone wrong reflecting government responses in wartime conditions. Even in times of crisis, these “rules” of maintaining an image of stability take urgent importance which can be paralleled to France’s attempts to maintain its image of strength at a time when this strength was coming under question as Hitler’s Germany prepared to attack. Hence, mise en scène plays an essential role in showing the true state of France and its morale at the threshold of Nazi invasion.
The French poetic realism of the film too dances in its aesthetic use of mise en scène. The multi-plane action and dynamic blocking are elements that are intrinsic to this style where the production design exists beyond the frame so as to create a complete and more “realist” picture of the fictional world of the characters. In The Rules of the Game, “individuals are never singled out in close-up shots at the expense of their surroundings, but rather the camera defines a world in which the individuals move” (Brooks, 1971, 277). That is, the characters and the environment are in a natural unison to express deeper insights about the society without fragmenting the world of the characters. As a result, the set decoration begins to reflect and narrate translations of the feelings and psychology of the characters. This activates an audience member to engage and decode the content being consumed. For example, the costumes worn by the primary characters of the film for the party although seemingly different from their roles in life serve as the loss of identity and self that the characters experience at the party. In costume as a Tyrolean girl, Christine longs for a sense of urgency and passion that she cannot express in her rule-loving aristocratic life. Similarly, dressed as a gypsie Genevieve can get intoxicated and step out of her role as the decent mistress (Perebinossoff, 1977, 53). Additionally, Professor Thorburn posits the concept of lyrical retardation—when the ongoing narrative takes a pause to observe what is in front of the camera—in French poetic realist cinema (Thorburn, 2016) which can indeed be seen in The Rules of the Game. During the hunting sequence, a series of shots show various rabbits and birds being killed – the narrative takes a break as viewers witness the spectacle of innocent animals being shot while trying to escape. This surrealist scene provides a deeper commentary on bourgeois culture and how those who are deviants or at the margins of these classes are alienated to restore the original rigid class systems on the foundation of lies. Therefore, just as the rabbit’s death permits the hunting to continue, Jurieu’s death presented as an accident ensures the continuation of the Marquis’ aristocracy. This can be interpreted as a metaphor for killers who sit in the comfort of their homes and declare war to “kill, kill, kill, kill many in hope that these killings will allow [them] to continue” (Renoir, 1990, 204) their privileged lifestyles.
In conclusion, the theatrical nature and the stylized mise en scène of The Rules of the Game (Renoir 1939) further establish it as a poetic realist film while providing social commentary on the stabilizing yet stifling nature of the insecure bourgeois of France at the time. From the use of theater to provide social commentary and stylized history to the symbolic implementation of mise en scène in conjunction with character emotions to create a cohesive and complex world, The Rules of the Game shines as a masterpiece decades after its initial negative reception.
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