The other day I was urging some friends on Twitter to watch Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which I believe to be one of the greatest films yet made — maybe the very greatest. So I thought I might explain why I have such regard for it, especially since it’s such a disorienting film to watch.
In comparison to Citizen Kane, which is its chief rival in the Greatest Movie Sweepstakes, Rules might seem emotionally incoherent. Kane’s emotional register is much narrower, and moves implacably towards the film’s climax. This suits its subject, which is the disintegration of a great man. But Rules swings wildly between farce and tragedy, and covers most of the emotional territory in between. Watching it, you can often be caught laughing at things you perhaps shouldn’t be laughing at — or laughing in ways that you feel might be inappropriate. But this is all part of Renoir’s strategy.
Whether Rules is the greatest film ever made or not, surely Renoir’s screenplay is the finest example of that difficult art, because in around an hour-and-a-half it takes a wide range of characters through the heights and depths of emotion. It does this through placing them in situations which deprive them of the rules which they have used all their lives to play their social, romantic, and personal games. We all play such games and live by such rules; they govern how we understand ourselves, how we understand our intimate relations, how we understand the social order. We are incorrigibly self-dramatizing on all these levels. And when deprived of our usual rules, when thrown into what appears to be a new game — or, worse, some situation that doesn’t even seem to be a game, that has no evident rules — we flounder helplessly. We become absurd, comical. But we also veer close to the possibility of tragedy.
Through his screenplay, but also through an extraordinarily sophisticated set of cinematic compositions, showing people in an immensely complex set of visual relations to one another, Renoir exposes all the games by which these people live. Marriages are thrown into chaos, as are love affairs, individual self-images, and the whole social order which, after all, is about to immolate itself in the fires of the Second World War — as the hunting scene famously demonstrates.
At the center of it all, in a strange sort of way, is the character Renoir himself plays, Octave. Octave observes all, disrupts all. He has no clear place in society. He is at the margins of everything. He is funny, charming, appealing — but also chaotic. It’s frightening to see how little he understands of himself, and how easily he disorients others without ever meaning to. Octave reminds us — the whole film reminds us — that the games we play, and the rules we play them by, are fragile, easily disrupted. Insofar as those rules help us to avoid painful truths about ourselves and our society, we might welcome their disruption. Except that, it turns out, we don’t know how to live without them.