“Dancing on a volcano.” That is how Jean Renoir – son of the Impressionist painter Pierre Renoir — described a movie he was about to make. The film became The Rules of the Game, released in 1939. An enduring masterpiece in the history of cinema, La Règle du Jeu (French title) wrests order out of chaos — but not before presenting chaos almost anatomically. As if we were studying it while enjoying the drama of human desires. The story takes place on the precipice of WWII. France is about to be invaded by the Germans.
It is about a society where everything is about to change.
An Amazon reviewer says this: “Usually on the list of top 10 films ever made, this film is excellent, portraying a decadent society on the brink of disaster! Don’t miss it!”
The film is set largely at the chateau of a wealthy couple, both of whom are involved in affairs with persons outside the marriage. Just to begin with…
Rules turns on chaos — but the chaos is delineated in ideals, romance, jealousy, wealth, deception, betrayals, and misunderstandings. A scientific concept, from mathematics used to describe the behavior of chaos, is “deterministic change.” I.e., the idea is that we can know the elements of chaos, even if we can’t yet compute them exhaustively.
In short, The Rules of the Game is about the ways of the human heart and the confusions and tragedies on the way to understanding it. The movie is black & white but the artistry of the way the camera is handled, and how the characters are conceived and presented, are way ahead of their time.
The heartbroken aviator
A core plot element is that an intrepid aviator is in love with the wealthy wife of the chateau owner. The woman he idolizes does not in fact love him. In other words, his idolized relationship is already fractured — not at all the way he thinks it is. The deception and the blindness are essential — both remind us of so much that is around us today.
The mismatch between what we think and how things actually are — is echoed throughout the film. Foreground and background — what is called “depth of field” (see below) are used as key story elements.
The aviator (“André) lands at Le Bourget airport outside Paris, after a heroic transatlantic flight, to the welcome of adoring news reporters. The excited press approaches him, asks him how he feels after the victorious effort. He replies that he is heartbroken. His eyes scan the crowd for the woman he was in love with (“Christine”), but she did not come to welcome him or celebrate his safe arrival.
That is the beginning of dislocation, of heartbreak and realization, in the film.
We don’t understand it
Ironically chaos, as a branch of science, is noted for having no rules. But it acts as if it has rules. Its structure can be described with numbers, especially its susceptibility to change. And the mechanisms of the changes it produces.
As a discipline, chaos theory is not popular though today it is more relevant in some exciting fields — economics, technology, AI, biology, nanoscience, weather studies … But Renoir was interested in its cognitive dislocation, the all-t00-human motives; and the shock these changes and illusions produce.
Chaos can attract mathematically gifted people — those with strong creative drives (artists, playwrights, certain scientists, innovators). The curious and open-minded. And sometimes those madly in love or prone to falling in love.
Chaos and creativity
In short, creative people are the most likely to understand chaos, to respect it. Bureaucrats and the upper-middle class are the most likely to see in it only the negative. Chaos to them is a product of criminality, addiction, immoral behaviors, and the like. Discover Magazine wrote in the early 90s that simple laws can mimic chaos, and lead “to behavior so complex and irregular that it appears to all intents and purposes random. ”
When disorder resembles chaos
Renoir, when asked who was to be the star of the film, and which was to be the main character, said “there isn’t any.” His aim “was to make a film d’ensemble, a film representing a society, a group of persons, almost a whole class, and not a film of personal affairs.” Great disorder can resemble chaos, as can the human heart; and both can produce unexpected changes or changes on an unexpected scale.
Chaos lacks hard structure (mathematicians can radically differ with this description), and therefore small inputs can create great changes. You know, the butterfly in Moscow that can produce a hurricane in the Caribbean, just by flapping its wings.
Destroy this film
Jean Renoir made and released the movie in 1939. Government, backed by social hypocrisy, banned the film and destroyed the copies it could get its hands on. Thankfully, Renoir and his collaborators hid parts of the film. Today we have reconstructions from parts that had been concealed or forgotten. There is no authoritative version, really.
The Rules of the Game still ranks among the top films in history. The film innovated certain cinematographic methods such as “depth of field” — which concerns both visual and emotional composition. It is painterly: the contrast between foreground and background, aspiration and outcome. The Rules of the Game is a comedy of manners, a love story. It is really a cluster of love stories all entangled. The film is also a savage social criticism of French culture just before WWII.
The architecture of change
Rules lays bare the architecture of the kind of social disorder that precedes the collapse of a society. It teaches us what to look for – how to see, if we are willing. In the case of France, the country was about to be occupied by the Nazis. Hedonism and selfishness held the stage while a tsunami of chaos swept in unseen. The wealthy are about to have their artworks seized, their chateaus taken. Instead, they worry about the score: their love affairs, infidelities, social intricacies.
“Undesirable influence over the young”
Jean Renoir, who also acted in the movie, had inherited his talent from a credible source. He was the son of prominent Impressionist painter Pierre Renoir. The French government banned the film. The reason given was “for having an undesirable influence over the young.”
I’d say, let’s give the young more credit.