In one of his periodic “Critics Picks” video features, A.O. Scott looks at Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939). He begins by wondering aloud if this is the greatest movie ever made. This isn’t hyberole. Once, when I was still teaching film studies, I was a member of an online film theory discussion group in which Rules of the Game emerged as the consensus best film of all time. (Interestingly, it also emerged as one of the hardest films to teach, or at least to get students to understand its greatness.) Renoir’s film has also been called the most perfect film ever made, as well as the only film ever made for grownups.
What makes the film so great? First of all, its timing. It depects a society “dancing on the edge of a volcano,” as one critic put it, just before World War II. Renoir was known as a warm and sympathetic person and director, but Rules is a strikingly cool and critical film–perfect for the time. Another reason may seem dryly technical, which is why students don’t easily warm to the film. Renoir remains the first and undisputed master of maximizing film space for narrative purposes.
Renoir’s technical can be seen in the famous bedtime scene at the chateau. (Scott shows a clip.) Renoir was famous for his deep-focus technique, which allows him to stage action on multiple planes within a single shot. His contemporaries Orson Welles and William Wyler also used deep-focus, but what set Renoir apart is that he uses deep focus not to bind front and back into a dramatic whole but to call attention to something else going on in the rear of the frame that isn’t directly related to the action in the foreground. He also moves his camera, expanding the dramatic space even further. All camera movement reframes our view, but to a greater extent than any other director Renoir unsettles our sense of where we should be looking. It’s a stance that is at once inclusive and corrosive, elegiac and revolutionary. Little wonder they tried to burn down the theater when Rules was first released.
This technique is the basis of Renoir’s critical realism, linking him to his friend Bertolt Brecht, at least in artistic intent if not aesthetic style. Renoir and Brecht were both interested in unraveling that ideal space in which everything is suppposed to be present and, therefore, instantly comprehensible to a viewer. The social relations in the film seem clear and immutable, yet, like the guests in the bedtime scene, all the pieces are flying off into different directions, until the entire social structure crumbles before our eyes.