A film that follows the lives of a group of upper class elites and their servants as they spend a banter-filled, love-tangled weekend hunting sounds like the plot to any 1930s comedy of manners. However, scholars such as André Bazin have championed Jean Renoir’s classic The Rule of the Game as “true cinematic realism.” A recent screening at the Museum of Modern Art was a reminder of how the film’s brilliance lies in its opposing realist filmmaking and chaotic screwball narratives styles.
Stylistically, The Rule of the Game is characterized by its mobile camera, which André Bazin called “an invisible guest wandering about… with a certain curiosity.” This “wandering” movement is best seen in an elongated chase sequence between two of the lower class characters. It begins when one man accuses another of having an affair with his wife, the camera following him as he angrily runs after the other man, panning across rooms, spanning through the entire house. This fluid camera movement is very different from the more static, intercut shots of fighting characters. Deep focus and odd framing (seen in shots of doors in the front of the frame and movement in the background) furthers the realistic element of the scene.
Renoir's Depth of Field: Notice the figures present in both the foreground and background of the frame.
While all of these formal elements make the film “realist,” its narrative shows images of disorder and violence. In the same chase sequence, we see nearly everyone at the party burst into fighting: the two lower class men run chase each other around the house as their lover yells in the background; the master of the house confronts a man about his relationship with his wife. Within each frame, punches are thrown, papers go flying, and people are screaming. Chaos is being shown while the camera moves and focuses in a “realist” manner.
The film’s use of realism to portray disorder is linked to the realities of the film’s time period. This was the era at the cusp of World War II; France was neighboring a violent, erratic nation threatening to take over the content. As the structure and narrative of The Rules of the Game reveals, chaos was a frightening possibility.
These chase sequences are executed with a lightheartedness that makes the film enjoyable for any viewer to watch. As such, The Rules of the Game is regarded as one of the most important achievements in world cinema. The combination of wit, realism, and chaos make Renoir’s a film worthy of study and repeated viewing.