The Rules of the Game is one of the best-loved films of all time. The following is a selection of tributes to it from writers and directors, originally included in the 2004 Criterion DVD edition.
Paul Schrader, Writer-Director
The Rules of the Game stands above all other films because, quite simply, it has it all. If one movie can stand for all others, represent all that film can be, that film is The Rules of the Game.
It excels in every area. The camera work is innovative but also part of the narrative. The exposition—the bane of all writers—is exquisite. Eight characters, each unique, are set in motion; each interacts in a different way with the others. The dialogue is sharp, understated, constantly interweaving tensions and themes. The details, the decor, the costuming—everything is to a point. Blissfully entertaining, it nonetheless touches each side of each relationship. It creates a world: upper and lower classes, men and women, wise and foolish, petty and sublime. Every shape has a shadow. This is craftsmanship of the highest order.
But most of all, The Rules of the Game is profoundly humanistic. Renoir details the complex threads of experience, then, with the aplomb of a showman, steps back from the threads to reveal the tapestry . . . a reality built on rules that will soon be irrelevant. At the end of an era (the eve of World War II), Renoir took a dying genre (the bedroom farce) and used it to define the world.
Amy Taubin, Film Critic
Why is The Rules of the Game the greatest film ever made? There are other films as formally complicated and graceful, as packed with ideas and emotions, as detailed and inclusive in their depiction of a social order and a historical moment. But I can think of no other film that is as unfailingly generous—to its audience, its characters, its actors, its milieu, and its medium. A social satire that is devoid of cynicism and its companion, sentimentality, and that evokes compassion rather than contempt is a rare thing. A cautionary tale that is as prophetic of today’s tomorrows as of those many yesterdays ago is rarer still.
Luc Sante, Writer
The paradoxes do nothing but multiply when it comes to The Rules of the Game. It is (like, say, Moby-Dick) a supreme classic that was initially a failure—such a failure that it was cut down by 25 percent, in bits and pieces, over the first few years after its release. It is a filigree of classical inspiration (the comedy of Marivaux, and Renoir tells us he listened incessantly to the music of Rameau and Couperin while working on it) that achieves a kaleidoscopic modernist complexity. It is a dense clockwork mechanism, and yet Renoir said, “Of all the movies I’ve made, probably none was so thoroughly improvised. We made up the script and decided on locations as we went along.” It is a lucid portrait of the time in which it was made, although you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of direct allusions. It is both a buoyant tragedy and a farce that ends in tears. It is simultaneously Shakespearean and Chekhovian. It is 106 minutes long, and yet it seems inexhaustible. Every viewing is repaid with new strands of the story, new turns of dialogue, new corridors of meaning—as if they had not been there all along but had grown in the interval between the last time you saw it and this time. It was made in 1939, but it continues to take shape as you watch.
Robin Wood, Film Historian
We value films for their coherence, yet some of the greatest transcend such a criterion. Few agree as to what exactly The Rules of the Game is about. Even Renoir seemed ambivalent, even self-contradictory, claiming once that “the film attacks the very structure of our society,” but on another occasion that “people said I was attacking society, but that is not true . . . I would have loved to live in that society.” Hence, every critic takes a different approach. I am especially fascinated by the film’s radical sexual politics and want to offer “promiscuity” as one of Renoir’s major positives.
It operates on all levels. There is the promiscuity of his attitude toward theory (every theory may be valid, according to its application), and the promiscuity of his camera style, moving continuously from character to character, entering and transitorily sharing each point of view. The opening quotation from The Marriage of Figaro applies the principle to love: As it has wings, why should it not fly?
The film definitively establishes his variant on the “eternal triangle,” extending it to a fourth component; the pattern recurs obsessively through The Diary of a Chambermaid, The Golden Coach, and Elena and Her Men, and is reversed in The River (one man, three women). The triangle raises the problem of simple choice (often husband or lover); the three-to-one dissolves this: Why have to choose at all? Why not all three? This raises fundamental questions: Why must sex be the criterion of fidelity? Why not merely an option? Why should not Christine (who, pace Renoir, is clearly the film’s central character, not André Jurieux) be free to relate as she pleases, whether or not the relationship is sexual?
The ending of the film is tragic, but the nature of that tragedy has been widely misunderstood: not the death of André (who is not a tragic figure) but the final entrapment of Christine, led back into the château as a prisoner, not of her husband but of the “rules of the game.”
Noah Baumbach, Writer-Director
I love the gradual seduction of Lisette (Paulette Dubost) by Marceau (Julien Carette). First, he ogles her while stuffing food in his mouth at the servants’ dinner table. Later he recites, “She loves me, she loves me not,” using the leather shoes he’s shining rather than flower petals. He plays a tune on a musical doll, looking at her with a strange amorous glow in his eyes. It’s part Groucho Marx, part lunatic. Then he attacks her and chases her through the room. Amazingly, Marceau’s tactics work on Lisette. He’s just as charming to her as he is to us. And I root for him and Lisette, just as I feel sorry for Schumacher (Gaston Modot), Lisette’s cuckolded husband. Later, after the two men have been fired, Marceau comes upon Schumacher on the grounds of the château. Schumacher cries, having lost his wife. Marceau has squandered his dream of becoming a servant. It’s both sad and comforting watching these men bond after having been trying to kill each other moments earlier. As they watch Octave and Lisette (actually Christine), Marceau says to Schumacher, “Haven’t you got your pistol? Let him have it.” Schumacher replies, “I fired all my bullets at you.”
Kent Jones, Film Critic
The Rules of the Game is certainly a masterpiece, but it’s a far more sprawling, unkempt film than it’s often cracked up to be—excitingly so. Renoir apparently took off in many different directions during the chaotic shoot, and it shows: this film is the work of a man thinking on his feet, plunging into new territory without knowing precisely where he’s going to end up. It is completely decentered, morally and otherwise, floating like a balloon over all the hullabaloo at the château. The supremely talented, supremely flexible Renoir rides his own movie like a wave, thus foreshadowing (and inspiring) the cinema of Godard, Rivette, and Cassavetes and the great experimental impulses that came alive in the sixties and seventies. Those famous lines he gave Octave, his own character, about everyone having his or her own reasons, have often been taken for a sweeping judgment of mankind. But in this film that seems to contain every emotion—joy, vanity, neurotic confusion, narcissistic self-obsession, passion, depression, smugness, envy, jealousy, pride, elation—it’s probably best understood as a gesture, one among many. Renoir once said that one should float through life like a cork over a stream. In The Rules of the Game, every character, from Octave on down, is madly trying to scoop up some water with their hands, only to see it drain through their fingers.
Kenneth Bowser, Director
As we watch the characters who inhabit Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, a kind of sweet melancholy overtakes us. How else to respond to people so wrongheadedly convinced that they can control life? Renoir’s artistry lies in his clear-eyed, unsentimental, but nevertheless empathic view of people struggling to bring order to the chaos that is life. That the film was made in 1938–’39, even as his neighbors were insisting on bringing a degree of order to existence that was essentially antihuman, only emphasizes the quiet humanity at the heart of this great artist, who recognized that nothing human was alien to him.
Wim Wenders, Director
This film is no small miracle, in my book. Made right before the outbreak of the Second World War, it is full of anticipation of the horrors about to happen. Yet it is rather looking back, showing an old and morose society vanishing in front of our eyes, not just in France but all over the world. Violence is erupting ferociously and randomly, even if the film itself is full of warmth and tenderness. An incredible lightness of being is carrying us through it and helping us overcome all the bitterness it evokes as well. You just wonder how a camera could have possibly been so weightless, long before the invention of the Steadicam. But what makes The Rules of the Game so ephemeral and translucent is really Jean Renoir’s view of things. Rarely has there been a film so void of any prejudice whatsoever. Nothing appears fixed or set. There are truly no rules to the game he’s unraveling in front of us. We’re rather invited to throw all preconceived notions overboard, on any of the film’s matters: friendship, trust, love, the relationships between men and women. I promise you: you will travel lighter after the film! (You also have to know that Jean Renoir appears as an actor. He’s the guy in the bear outfit! Watching him alone is a sheer pleasure. This film is addictive—be warned!)
J. Hoberman, Film Critic
The Rules of the Game was the great culminating talkie of the 1930s, before World War II changed everything. This magnificent ensemble piece—a movie that Woody Allen, Robert Altman, and Mike Leigh, to name three, are always trying to remake—is as fresh, funny, and poignant as it ever was, and even more mysterious. How did Renoir do it? The Rules of the Game has much overlapping dialogue and very few reverse-angle shots. The camera is endearingly shaky, as if jostled by the mad chases and frantic intrigue; the deep space allows ample room to mix up spouses and lovers, masters and servants, living creatures and automatic dolls, theater and life, truth and lies. The leads are fabulously miscast. What to call a sex comedy of manners that turns slapstick and culminates in murder? Is it a tragic farce, a form of melodramatic social satire, a new kind of documentary? Not surprisingly, The Rules of the Game was the greatest failure of Renoir’s career. Midway through its Paris premiere, the audience started hooting. (Was it the hunting scene?) Then they rioted. The movie was banned only days before war broke out and wasn’t seen again in its entirety for twenty years. The comment made by Renoir’s character, Octave, “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons” is often attributed to Renoir himself—but without the qualifying awful.
Peter Cowie, Film Historian
While he remains an individualist, Renoir always returns to the essential need for companionship between men and women. His heroes and heroines, from the enraged gamekeeper to the sophisticated Geneviève, harbor the same emotions at heart.
Renoir asserts their sad predicament in one of the best sequences in French cinema. The game shoot is filmed on a perfect spring day, with low, luminous clouds prevailing as the beaters march through a young wood on their time-honored mission. The camera zips behind each luckless hare and then hovers dispassionately while the animal squirms and suddenly dies—just as André falls at the end of the film, a victim of society rather than circumstance.
Humanity, warmth, generosity: these are the qualities that infuse The Rules of the Game and that transcend Renoir’s occasional flippancy and lack of discipline. Is he not indeed the father of the New Wave?
Robert Altman, Director
The Rules of the Game taught me the rules of the game.