The Moviegoer Rules of the Game
at Kirland House tonight and tomorrow
THE OPENING shot of Rules of the Game is one of Renoir's beautiful rough tracks. Starting on a technician tuning dials, it pans down left to electrical cords and follows them up across to an announcer whose voice we hear: "This is Radio Paris at Le Bourget . . ." Ae she moves into the crowd welcoming Andre Jurieu, France's latest aviation hero, the camera follows her. But the clarity of Renoir's usual tracks is gone. In the darkness of the shot only people's faces stand out; its closeness, and its high angle, let little more than the announcer and her microphone appear.
Though the camera tracks with her through the crowd, the surrounding night gives us the impression that the world is moving, not the frame. When the plane lands and the crowds breaks into a run, becoming suddenly much more distant, it's impossible to tell whether the camera or the people have moved. All we're sure of is the shining face of a woman pushing through a crowd, speaking the nonsense announcers spin out when they've nothing to say, hunting for a man whose location and identity are in question. Instead of defining the situation, showing us clearly the setting and order of the action, the shot affects us while explaining nothing.
The shots of Rules of the Game affect far more than they clarify. In each the normal rectangular order of human environments, the square corners on which houses are built, is disrupted in favor of a world filled with senseless detail. The aviator has landed complaining that the woman he loves isn't present. Renoir cuts to a radio in her room, following the announcer's voice. The room is bright and elegant, unlike the night-time of the airfield-and full of ornament. Her dressing table overflows with gleaming toilette articles. A mirror atop it reflects her maidservant twice, filling much of the frame with her image. Very little of the rest of the room appears, and although the space over her shoulder is quite deep, this depth gives us no idea of the order of the place, although her femininity and high social class have been very strongly established by the objects and furniture. All the details of the room are there, but they give us only the feeling of the situation.
Rules is designed visually to prevent our making sense of any setting. Christine's husband appears in the hall in mid-shot: the space is deep and rectangular, we ought to be able to tell where he is going. But as he walks into it the camera tracks wildly across his back, completely changing the dynamics of the space. On the left the room seems to extend quite far, but as he walks we find that a mirror has created an illusory depth, that the space is ordered quite differently than we thought.
A close-up of Jurieu driving in a car, the barest amount of background road visible in the window behind him, pans across the front seat to the close-up face of his friend Octave, grimacing nervously. Renoir cuts to a distant high-angle; the car drives off the road into a ditch. Renoir cuts to a frame three-quarters filled by waving grass: it's impossible to say whether it's a low-angle shot and the characters are about to appear over its edge, or whether he's shooting a hill, or indeed where we are at all. The shooting of the sequence has broken all emotional continuity: the mood of each shot is completely different.
WHAT SUSTAINS the sequence and the film, unifying them and making them continuous, is a sense of violent personal action. Even the most confusing tracks are extremely dynamic, Renoir's cutting presents a rapid series of events whose emotional strength and content vary widely. Renoir cuts into close-up, shoving the character's half-dark faces into ours; he cuts away to hold them in long shot for extended scenes. But always his characters are acting, pushing, crying out, confused but vital.
In its use of constant action Rules is consistent with Renoir's earlier films, constructed not on clearly patterned moral relationships but on the process of events. What unifies his works in the thirties is not the working-out of themes in a film so much as the constant detail-in-motion of social and personal life. All actions tend to equal importance as Renoir gives each character minor mannerisms and gestures to fill each moment. A surface of action gives his films a continuity of realistic events.
Rules is much more stylized by Renoir's quick cutting Rather than following a few characters for a long time. Renoir cuts away to some other relationship, breaking up his normal realistic exploration of spaces and events. But dramatically Rules still works as a continuous surface of events-personal events more vital and unpredictable than before. Each character's actions express him, not indirectly in mannerisms which type him, but in direct self-assertions. The rapid succession of strong personalities and events is disturbingly confusing.
Knowing themselves little, the people of Rules know those onto whom they push themselves even less. Nevertheless they act, without reflecting. The most assertive and idealistic of them is Andre Jurieu, the man who flew the Atlantic for a woman. It's significant for the mood and tendency of Rules that earlier in the depths of his love he talked of suicide-an act few of Renoir's characters consider.
Instead he joins a group of aristocrats in a country mansion. During their extended party the tangled relationships between them proliferate. The drama becomes a monstrous pattern without order, filled with action which develops only to greater confusion and triviality. The mansion is a collection of rooms we cannot fit together, each with its own specific disorder. And when it's closest to an apparent resolution the film becomes completely chaotic. Octave and Christine. alone in a greenhouse in the park, decide to elope. The light falling on the scene is so broken that their faces and their surroundings are fragmented into patterns of light and dark. It becomes impossible to tell where a character ends and the setting begins; they have become a single meaningless surface. Indeed, one man watching them mistakes Christine for his own wife and later, mistaking Jurieu for Octave, shoots him.
LIKE RENOIR'S other idealistic heroes Jurieu carries away in his death everybody's ideal aspirations. Because he acts explicitly from the deep passions the others can't sustain, his death carries more weight than those of Renoir's earlier heroes. The aristocrats agree to call it an accident; the speeches and polite conduct that cover his death seem more artificial than ever.
In refusing to take his murder seriously the characters remove all ideal depth from life. They dedicate themselves to a world of dark confusion, textures of broken light and shadow without order, violent emotional events with scant meaning. In thus interpreting the continuity of social process and order after individual death, Renoir finally recognizes the seriousness of his material. His fluid and continuous relationships between men, his heroes' deaths at the hands of society are given the atmosphere of horror they deserve. Renoir is morally engaged in Rules of the Game as in few other films.