The Rules of the Game
The Pragmatics of Humanism
To understand Jean Renoir is to comprehend something of cinema's relationship with realism, but also its relationship to humanity. In cinema the two words often come together even if they may need a little bit of unpacking words so laden with assumption cannot be left unqualified. Realism in film, after all, was a position sought after rather than assumed and humanity can mean no more than an interest in any one of the 7.8 billion people on the planet. Films as different as Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, M and All About Eve have humanity aplenty if we speak of the numerical fact of people existing within them. But when speaking of Renoir's realism and his humanity we ought to mean a specific thing, and even about how they work in conjunction. For Renoir, realism means attending to the people alongside the story, to see that an aspect of the plot is also a human detail. The more of these human details a filmmaker can contain, the more the realism can seem apparent and the more humanity the filmmaker seems to express. When Roland Barthes proposed in 'The Reality Effect' that certain details in works by Flaubert and Michelet can be 'structurally scandalous' because they serve no function in a strictly structural analysis of the text, one can see that this is the tradition in which Renoir works. As Barthes notes that Flaubert informs us of "an old piano, supported under a barometer, a pyramidal heap of boxes and cartons" in 'A Simple Tale', the French thinker sees that even if such attributes as the piano signifies bourgeois comfort and the cartons and boxes indicating the disorder of a family whose status has lapsed, the barometer seems to have no function at all. Generally, the details are scandalous because ostensibly extraneous.
What we have offered is no more than the introduction to Barthes' argument but what is useful for our purposes is to see that cinema is a medium constantly threatened by scandalous irrelevance, at showing within the frame numerous items that can offer a "reality effect' in Barthes' terms, whether the film likes it or not. Most viewers might not notice what is in the shot but they would notice what is absent from it. If, for example, a person entered a sitting room and all it had in it was the settee the character went to sit down on the absences would be conspicuous. In a book, a writer need say no more but a filmmaker will be saying more just by virtue of saying so little: a room with nothing but a settee in it, with no picture on the wall, no other chairs, no fireplace, rug, ornaments and so on wouldn't indicate a person who goes to sit on the settee but someone who has nothing in their living room except a couch. Even if the filmmaker doesn't care for anything but that the man goes to sit on the sofa, these details will be put in to make clear that what matters is the man going to sit down. These are the necessary details of verisimilitude which wouldn't quite be the same thing as realism nor at the other extreme expressionism. If in the latter the mise en scene reflects the characters' thoughts and feelings, as we see in extreme form in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and in a more modestly yet colourful manner in Douglas Sirk films like Written on the Wind and All that Heaven Allows, a film interested in the necessary details of verisimilitude wouldn't wish for the mise-en-scene to call attention to itself but it would wish for the viewer to find it visibly invisible. In other words, we don't especially notice it because there is nothing anomalous about it.
However, the realism that preoccupies Renoir is rather than invisible or expressive, excessive, excessive in the sense that it gives to the scenes a greater sense of verisimilitude than is necessary, and thus offers something of the scandal that Barthes sees could be observed in Flaubert's work (a writer Renoir adapted in 1934 with Madame Bovary). As Bert Cardullo noted, "it may not be remembered that before World War II, and even for some time after it, Jean Renoir was by no means ranked as the supreme French film director. Marcel Carne, Rene Clair, Jacques Feyder, and Julien Duvivier were all considered at least his equals, or even his superiors." Cardullo reckons, "his work, by comparison with theirs, was felt to lack polish and dramatic shape; both technically and morally, Renoir's movies seemed rough, often tentative or self-questioning." (Postscript)
What interests us chiefly is the film he made five years after Madame Bovary and where the shape could apparently seem very rough indeed. In The Rules of the Game, there is a scene two-thirds of the way through where three of the characters are shown talking. One, Octavio (played by the director himself) enters the room as the two others (the married man of the house and his mistress) discuss their affair. The camera remains throughout this brief scene as a medium-long shot single-take. The characters are no more present within the frame than the environment in which they are situated. A simple way to have emphasised the characters over the room would have been to cut as soon as Octavio enters to a medium-shot of the other two, and then relied on shots back and forth, or a medium-shot of the three of them, that would have made the background more or less disappear. Instead, Renoir suggests that the space they exist within isn't merely a necessary interior that we can forget about as quickly as possible and hardly notice at all, but one that must be kept in the view at all times. Though one may see such an approach to film as antithetical to good art, assuming the director should manipulate the viewer into seeing what they want the viewer to focus upon (hence Renoir's initially more modest reputation), Renoir allows for the scandalously excessive that he then modifies and calibrates through the performances as readily as through the camera or the cut. As Raymond Durgnat notes: "there are few close-ups, in the American sense, in this film, and Renoir is continuously involved in the interesting question of 'dramatic perspective', whereby an actor in the background of the shot may have to overact (by film standards) if our attention is to be rapidly attracted to him; but as the camera moves towards him to place him in the foreground, so his style will have to modulate towards something quieter." (Jean Renoir) This isn't just editing within the frame, which would already be far away from the montage-oriented cutting of the Soviet school, and the pragmatics of Hollywood filmmaking. It is, if you like, editing within the performance. In this scene, the three actors are all emphatic in their acting while the camera is aloof in its positioning. As Robert and Genevieve argue about their relationship, as Octavio tries to make his way out of the bear suit he has been wearing in a theatre show, the camera remains in medium long shot, and so too the performances remain exaggerated.
In an earlier scene, shortly before the aviator, Andre Jurieu, arrives, the film shows us numerous characters either getting organised or getting reacquainted. Various people enter and exit the frame, say hello to each other and ask each other questions, and all the while the viewer plays catch me up with the information both verbal and visual. At one moment, we see Genevieve on the ground floor chatting, while upstairs on the landing Robert exchanges a few words with someone before coming down the stairs to speak to Genevieve. Afterwards, the film moves to the kitchen where Robert's wife Christine and a friend describe to the chef the various dietary requirements of the guests. We're inclined to sympathise with the chef not only because we might find the demands placed upon him immense as he has to remember that one guest will only take sea salt and only after the food is cooked, while for another he won't drink tea or coffee but only a slice of lemon in hot water and so on, but because like him we are inclined to feel overloaded with information.
Here we can return to Renoir's realism and his humanism. Might we wonder if his interest in realism as a means by which to allow the viewer freedom within the shot, in often refusing the close-ups that will direct our thoughts and feelings, as antithetical to humanism if we see humanism as about the human? In the scene with Octavio, Genevieve and Robert, where the characters are no more emphatic than the surrounding mise-en-scene, the excessive aspect would seem to undermine the human aspect; the interest in the space that we can observe appears to be of more importance than the humanity we ought to feel. If in this exchange between Robert and Genevieve, Renoir had cut to a close up of Genevieve as she implores Robert to leave with her and abandon Christine since she is obviously no longer in love with Robert, Renoir might have registered a feeling for her love for Robert. But instead what the director offers is a complex relationship with judgement. Rather than simply offering humanism, Renoir is interested in acknowledging complexity. We should remember that as Octavio enters the room, we see not far from the door he closes Christine and another man in the background, just as later Octavio, who has known Christine since they were young, will declare his feelings for Christine and propose they run away together.
To understand an aspect of Renoir's work is to align his famous remark in the film "that everybody has their reasons", with a still more famous one from Pascal that "the heart has its reasons which reason does not know." (Pensees) In Renoir's earlier Toni, set in the working-class south of the country rather than the haute bourgeois in north-central France, everybody too has their reasons and reasons that the heart does not know, as a young woman cannot help but love her partner no matter how badly he treats her, just as the man cannot help but love another woman who marries someone whom she cannot love. Near the beginning of The Rules of the Game, Robert and Octave joke about the possibility that Andre Jurieu and Genevieve will fall in love and solve the problem of Andre and Christine and Genevievie and Robert. Robert and Christine will remain married, and Andre and Genevieve can pair up. This would be the best of all possible worlds but Renoir's realism, which is greater than his humanity, without dispelling the latter, rests on saying that the best of all possible worlds would demand the best from all of its people. To acknowledge that this world has not come to pass isn't quite the same as cynicism, just that Renoir is wary of false optimism and sees that the best way to counter it cinematically is to acknowledge the self in relation to the world. "Toni was to speed up my separation from the notion of the predominance of the individual. I could no longer be satisfied with a world which was nothing but the dwelling place of persons having no link between them." (My Life and My Films) Renoir wasn't interested in a backdrop for the action but that foreground and background were one, not easily separated, with the director aware that people are products of their environment and that any humanity needed to acknowledge the complexities involved rather than just the moral through-line of behaviour.
Few films have created a more complex, entangled through-lines than The Rules of the Game and generated a mise en scene to match it. The messiness critics initially saw, as Cardullo notes, is the emotional intricacy of people who aren't always sure what they want, in a space where they are all constantly integrating and disintegrating. It isn't only that everyone has their reasons, but that everyone also has a space within the frame that in another film would either be emphasised or eschewed. In other words, certain characters would prove secondary to the story and secondary to the frame, of little importance unless they were of central importance. In Toni, there are very sympathetic characters like Toni's friend Fernand (who also has Marie's interest at heart and whose heart may even belong to her) but he remains a peripheral figure whose reasons are his own and not shared with the audience. He does not become at all central even if he may well be the most agreeable character in the film. In The Rules of the Game, the peripheral and the central keep shifting and one can see this visually in a moment when Christine announces to the others the sincerity of her friendship with Andre. It comes moments after various characters have commented on the nature of their relationship, and as Christine speak in a medium-shot so we can see Robert and Octavio behind her, looking like they don't quite buy the story Christine is telling. As she finishes speaking, the camera pulls back and without a cut numerous characters enter the frame, and there are a dozen people in the shot. As Robin Wood says, "the continual reframing and entrances/exits ensures that the spectator's gaze is constantly being transferred from character to character, action to action. If Christine is gradually defined as the film's central figure, it is never at the expense of other characters and she never becomes our sole object of identification." (The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmaking) In Toni, the shots have a beautiful emotional balance as we understand Marie's love for Toni but can also see why he might be more drawn to Josefina, while also seeing why pragmatically Josefina will marry the relatively moneyed Albert. But we are in no doubt Toni is our central character; we might question whether Christine happens to be. Though both Toni and The Rules of the Game end tragically, Toni leaves us feeling that only Toni or Marie might meet their demise; in The Rules of the Game there is a sense in which anybody could, and it is anybody who does. Andre is shot by the jealous gamekeeper, thinking the man was Octavio.
If The Rules of the Game is usually acknowledged as Renoir's masterpiece, it suggests that he is a realist more than a humanist, a director who knows that one of the dangers of humanism is that it offers a 'fairy tale' element as Renoir understood it and wasn't afraid to incorporate. "I am incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairytale" Renoir insisted. However, The Rules of The Game might be the most obvious instance where the fairy tale was all but absent.
© Tony McKibbin