La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939), directed by Jean Renoir.

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

In his review of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, written to accompany the Criterion release of the film, Alexander Sesonske declares that the film is “a dazzling accomplishment, original in form and style, a comic tragedy, absurd and profound. … It is also, in the words of Dudley Andrew, ‘the most complex social criticism ever enacted on the screen.’ A total box-office failure in 1939, The Rules of the Game now ranks as one of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema.” Similarly, in his enthusiastic appreciation of the film, George Copeland indicates the its special character: “Something magical happens between a viewer and their favorite films. Perhaps it’s close to being in love, but I’m not sure. All I know is that every time I watch my favorite film of all time, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, I feel as if I’m seeing it for the very first time, even if I know the film intimately well.” Meanwhile, the eminent film critic Roger Ebert, in a 2004 retrospective review, calls attention to the complexities of this special film: “This magical and elusive work, which always seems to place second behind Citizen Kane in polls of great films, is so simple and so labyrinthine, so guileless and so angry, so innocent and so dangerous, that you can’t simply watch it, you have to absorb it.”

By the time he made this film, Renoir was well established as a filmmaker, having scored a major success with his 1937 film La Grande Illusion (The Grand Illusion). He had also made notable adaptations of two of the most beloved novels in the French literary tradition, with Madame Bovary (1934), based on Flaubert’s classic 1857 novel,and La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938), based on the 1890 novel of the same title by Émile Zola. Renoir’s early success allowed him to create his own production company, the first major product of which was The Rules of the Game. Unfortunately, this film was rejected by French audiences, then banned as “demoralizing” by the French government upon the outbreak of war with Germany. Renoir moved on to Hollywood, while his production company went bankrupt. Its negative destroyed in a World War II bombing attack, The Rules of the Game fell into relative obscurity, even though it was named the tenth greatest film of all time by the prestigious British film journal Sight and Sound in 1952. In 1959, though, a restored version of the film was released (the version used by Criterion), and The Rules of the Game has gained widespread acclaim since that time.


Though some of the initial viewers of The Rules of the Game found the film chaotic and disorganized, it is in fact a carefully choreographed work of cinematic art that was perhaps a bit ahead of its time. This fact, of course, now seems a bit ironic because, to viewers in the twenty-first century, the film probably seems quite old-fashioned. Some contemporary viewers love the old-fashioned feel of classic films, but others often express impatience with “old” films, finding it hard to relate to them. In the case of The Rules of the Game, this difficulty is of two kinds. For one thing, the historical circumstances addressed by the film are now quite distant from us in time, as I will discuss below. For another thing, both the art and the technology of filmmaking have changed dramatically since 1939. Most obviously, The Rules of the Game was shot in black-and-white, as were all French films (and almost all films, period) of the time. Indeed, 1939 was the year when color film would make its first truly important appearance in film with the release of the landmark American films Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Today’s “films,” though are shot almost exclusively in color, but they are also shot almost exclusively on digital video, rather than on film. This new technology not only facilitates the use of computer-generated special effects but also enables styles of editing that are substantially different from those that might be used with conventional film.

Renoir did not have such technologies available to him in 1939, but he did, in fact, employ state-of-the-art technologies in making the film. But he also employs a great deal of deft artistry. For one thing, The Rules of the Game is a very literary film, a fact of which we are made aware from the very beginning, with the on-screen display of the lyrics of a chorus from Le Mariage de Figaro, a 1778 play by Pierre Beaumarchais. Meanwhile, Alfred de Musset’s 1833 play Les Caprices de Marianne supplied much of the plot of The Rules of the Game. For example, Musset’s play also includes a constellation of upper-class characters that includes a virtuous wife (like Christine in the film), her frustrated lover (like Jurieux), her jealous husband (like Robert), and an interceding friend (like Octave in the film, and even named “Octave” in the play). Renoir, however, doubled this structure, adding a mirror-image constellation of the same combination of characters, this time from the working class, with Lisette as the wife, Marceau as the lover, Schumacher as the husband, and Octave once again as the friend. Thus, as the only character who circulates in both constellations of characters, Octave serves as a go-between not only on each class level, but also as someone who is able to move between the classes.

The cinematic artistry of The Rules of the Game is obvious in every scene. For illustration, it is worth looking at the first scene in some detail. After the opening reference to Beaumarchais, the film begins with a sort of prologue as aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) lands at Le Bourget Airport, on the outskirts of Paris, the same airport at which Charles Lindbergh landed after making the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. The scene, shot somewhat in the style of a late-1930s newsreel, begins with an air of realism, a real (and then very well known) French radio reporter, Lise Elina, reports on Jurieux’s landing for a real Paris radio station. Elina notes that Jurieux has also flown solo across the Atlantic, setting a record that is “comparable only to the one set a dozen years ago by Charles Lindbergh.” The film thus very subtly undermines Jurieux from the very beginning, while at the same time taking a satirical swipe at a Paris society that would make a big deal of the fact that a French aviator has achieved in 1939 something that an American aviator had already achieved as long ago as 1927. These intervening twelve years were times of great advances in aviation, but the French seem to have advanced very little.

Meanwhile, the aviator had become a key figure in the pop culture of the 1930s, becoming an important image of heroic and courageous masculinity. Yet Jurieux will not turn out to be such a figure. He is greeted at the airfield by his friend Octave (played by Renoir himself), who has come in lieu of their mutual friend, Christine (Nora Gregor), Marquise de la Chesnaye. Christine is the wife of Robert (Marcel Dalio), the Marquis de la Chesnaye, but she is also the beloved of Jurieux, who is shocked and disappointed that she has not come to greet him, given that he apparently performed the entire feat just to impress her. Then, when Elina comes to interview him live on the radio, he announces to the whole world: “I’ve never been so disappointed in my life. I made this flight for a woman. She’s not here to welcome me. She didn’t even bother. I tell her this publicly: she’s disloyal!” This somewhat startling breach of decorum immediately undermines Jurieux as a figure of strong masculine heroism.

The film then suddenly cuts to a close-up of a vintage 1930s radio set, tubes and all. Indeed, these first few minutes do a great deal to foreground technology: the film’s very first shot is of the radio equipment being used to broadcast from the airfield, and there are also prominent shots in this first segment of Elina’s microphone and, of course, Jurieux’s plane. France, the film seems to want to say, should be on the verge of an exciting new technology-driven future. Unfortunately, though, we will discover time and again in the film that the French have been unable to overcome old habits of behavior that are preventing them from advancing into this future. Thus, technology doesn’t seem to get them anywhere—as when Jurieux crashes Octave’s car driving in from the airport, or when we see the mechanical birds and dolls collected by Robert, suggesting the frivolous (and racist) use of a rather old-fashioned technology, such dolls having been produced as early as the eighteenth century (with forerunners going back to ancient times), so they might have entertained a French aristocracy on the way to its downfall in the French Revolution.

Christine’s radio set.

It should be noted, incidentally, that a close look at Christine’s radio set shows that it was made by RCA, the Radio Corporation of America. RCA was a forward-looking company that introduced many important technological innovations that put it on the forefront of developments in electronics and communications for half a century, from the 1930s to the 1980s, until it was acquired and dismembered by General Electric in 1986. The presence of this radio set thus very subtly indicates the way in which the French upper class of the 1930s, while clinging to certain old-fashioned modes of conduct and in some ways attempting to mimic the prerevolutionary aristocracy, were nevertheless living in a modern world. In addition, the fact that this radio set relies on American technology suggests the way in which the decadence of the French ruling class had caused France—still far ahead of America in technological advancement only a half century earlier, to begin to fall behind an America they had once helped to create. Instead of state-of-the-art radios, the French are now creating mechanical toys.

This cut to the radio set at the end of the opening segment also speaks to the deft artistry with which this film is made, immediately taking us out of the newsreel style of the first scene and into the film proper, as it were, the cut from Jurieux speaking into a microphone to the radio set showing us that someone is listening to his words on the other end. That someone, of course, turns out to be Christine herself, attended by her maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) in her brightly lit Paris apartment. As if the cleverness of this cut were not enough, Renoir also announces his artistry as he has the camera slowly pan up from the radio set to a mirror, where we catch our first glimpse of Christine, reflected in the glass. Still shown only in the mirror (as she will be throughout the scene), she then walks toward the radio set, as we hear Elina attempting to apologize for Jurieux’s odd behavior on the basis of the fact that he must be exhausted after his 23-hour flight. Apparently embarrassed by Jurieux’s on-air outburst, Christine turns off the radio.

Renoir also employs a mirror shot effectively at another moment near the end of the film. As Lisette attempts to talk Octave out of his newly-announced plan to run off with Christine (a plan that might perhaps threaten her employment), we see the two of them standing in front of a mirror in such a way that we can see each of them from both the front and the back, in a sort of parody of the shot-reverse shot, over-the-shoulder views that had by this time become standard in Hollywood films. Meanwhile, in this same shot, we also see Octave at times looking at himself in the mirror, as if to examine and to question his own plans.

Renoir uses mirrors very creatively in the film.

Clearly, the most successful technology in The Rules of the Game is the state-of-the-art technology used by Renoir himself in making it. The film makes especially good use of deep-focus photography—two years before Citizen Kane became famous for its pioneering use of that technique. In most films of the time, the foreground (containing the main characters in the scene) is in sharp focus, while the background is out of focus, directing the attention of the audience to the action that occurs in the foreground. But this film continually keeps the background in focus as well, often showing important action there. There is a great deal of other fancy camerawork as well, as in the very effective use of moving cameras or in that early shot of Christine in the mirror. Even Vanneman, who is skeptical of the film’s political satire, appreciates its technical artistry: “The magnificent sets in which the action takes place, the infinite care with which Renoir arranged each shot—the lighting, the composition, the placing of the actors—how horrible to lose a single frame! If you are less interested in the French social structure immediately prior to World War II and more interested in film, you really ought to see The Rules of the Game a dozen times—a dozen times a year, that is, just to remind yourself of what could be done.”

Typical deep-focus shot.

The deft use of filmmaking techniques is also on full display during the crucial hunting scene that lies at the center of the film, in which the brutality of this hunt demonstrates the dark side of the decadence of the French elite. The haute bourgeois guests wait, concealed in blinds, while a virtual army of servants marches across the grounds of La Colinière, driving the many pheasants and rabbits that inhabit the grounds into range. These poor animals have absolutely no defense as the hunters brutally shoot them down once they are flushed into the open, for no reason other than the fact that they seem to enjoy demonstrating that they have the power to kill things that are weaker than themselves. The key moment of the hunting scene is one of the most powerful ever put on film: it focuses on a small, wounded rabbit as it shakes its tail and flexes its legs in the anguish of death. The wealthy guests and their hosts might be silly, but they can also be cruel, even deadly[1].

This powerful scene is brilliantly presented. For one thing, the beauty of the woods around La Colinière contrasts sharply with the gruesome slaughter that is taking place within them, making the killings seem even more horrifying. In addition, the editing of this sequence is quite frenetic in comparison with the rest of the film, which features a number of shots of more than a minute in length. But the sequence in the woods, lasting three minutes and 40 seconds features 51 shots, meaning that each shot averages only just over four seconds. Moreover, the actual killings (12 animals are killed in all) take place within a mere 53 seconds that include 22 shots, so that each show only lasts an average of just over 2 seconds. This quick cutting adds to the sense of violence and chaos, making the carnage of the hunt even more of a predecessor to the carnage of the upcoming war than it might otherwise have seemed.

The carefully-planned structure of the film is later demonstrated when this suggestion of the murderous violence that lies just beneath the surface of bourgeois frivolity is mirrored later in the play when Robert’s furiously jealous gamekeeper, Edouard Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the husband of Lisette, attempts to murder the former poacher Marceau (Julien Carette), after finding the latter in a compromising position with Lisette. Then, Schumacher shifts his focus, becoming pals with Marceau, just as enemies frequently suddenly become friends in this film. But Schumacher also becomes convinced that Lisette is now cheating on him with Octave (though it is in fact Christine whom he has observed kissing Octave). Then, in a further case of mistaken identity, Schumacher (enforcing what he believes the rules of the game of love to require) shoots and kills Jurieux, thinking him to be Octave[2]. Robert then decides to smooth over the whole affair and to declare the killing an accident (which, in a sense, it was), and all of his guests seem happy with this outcome. Robert, in this way, avoids a scandal, but it is also clear that he is not terribly disappointed to see his wife’s potential lover killed.


In one key scene, Octave makes clear his view of the thoroughly corrupt nature of the society around him—though his speech rings uncomfortably true for Americans of our own time as well. “Today, everyone lies,” he declares to Christine, whom he has known since she was a girl. “Pharmaceutical fliers, governments, the radio, the movies, the newspapers. So why shouldn’t simple people like us lie as well?” In this society, this film seems to want to say, lying is a way of life, especially for the ruling class, who seem to treat life itself as an amusing fiction.

The “game” at the heart of The Rules of the Game is, first and foremost, the game of love, and almost all of the film’s action is motivated by the pursuit of romantic fulfillment. This film, however, is anything but a love story. For one thing, all of these romantic games take place against the background of a Europe that is teetering on the brink of war, suggesting that the film’s characters should perhaps be worried about more than their own love games. And, to make matters worse, these “games” are indeed merely games. The characters, when pursuing “love,” often do so merely as a form of superficial amusement; and, when they are perhaps feeling something genuine, they seem more concerned with appearing to follow the rules of social decorum than with establishing a true connection with the one they love. And these phenomena are so widespread in the film that it is clear that we are not observing the foibles of individuals so much as the moral sickness that pervades the entire society in which these individuals live.

More particularly, this film seeks to reveal the selfishness and decadence of the French upper class (known in French as the “haute bourgeoisie,” or the “high bourgeoisie”), whose irresponsible lack of concern for anything other than their own petty games has left France ill prepared for the crisis that it faced at the end of the 1930s. And it is crucial to consider this crisis when viewing the film as a work of social criticism. Indeed, one of the most common observations that critics have made about The Rules of the Game is that it gains power from the very special historical context (France on the eve of World War II) in which the film was made. Renoir himself described the film as “a precise description of the bourgeoisie of our time,” and it is clear that the film is intended largely as social commentary. According to the most common reading of The Rules of the Game, the country outing at the heart of the film depicts a French elite who are too corrupt and decadent to be able to provide the kind of leadership that would have been required to prevent the defeat of France at the hands of the German Nazis in the upcoming war. Christopher Faulkner, a leading scholar of Renoir’s work, indicates this view:

The Rules of the Game is a report on the condition of French society on the eve of the Second World War. … The film exposes the hypocrisy, ignorance, cynicism, and moral turpitude of a society in the face of what it perceives to be imminent threats to its security. … The hunt sequence [itself] recalls a scene in Renoir’s Life Is Ours, in which members of the upper class dressed for the hunt take target practice at cardboard cutouts of French workers. The war … can [thus] be understood as class war as well as international war” (302–03)[3].

Elsewhere, in his book-length study of Renoir’s socially-oriented films, Faulkner states a similar view slightly differently:

“The darkness falling over Europe is reflected in the savage pessimism of La Règle du jeu. With hindsight, the complacency and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie represented in the film can be taken as an indictment of its responsibility for the outbreak of World War II. But a more productive reading of the film is one that sees it as a summing up of the events and emotions of the years from 1935 on” (Social Cinema 108).

Clearly, it is valuable when watching this film to have a good idea of its historical context. All conventional Western capitalist societies were plunged into Depression in the 1930s, partly because they were all already interlinked, so as Britain and the United States fell, the others followed. France was not spared this phenomenon, which was perhaps made more painful by the fact that the economy of their next-door German neighbors was actually booming by the mid-1930s, thanks to the particularly extreme and inhuman form of capitalism that was installed by Hitler and the Nazis. Meanwhile, as the Germans gained in power and began to make more and more aggressive moves toward their neighbors, the French were all too well aware that they were directly in the path of any potential Nazi expansion. At the same time, a fascist government had just come into power in Spain, France’s neighbor to the South, as a result of the Spanish Civil War, leaving the French feeling very much boxed in. Thus, ongoing economic difficulties combined with the growing threat of German invasion to make the end of the 1930s a tense time indeed in French society—though it should also be pointed out that there were extensive right-wing forces within France that were quite supportive of fascism, leading to even more tension.

It is also important to understand that this tension had been brought to a head on September 30, 1938, with the so-called “Munich Agreement,” in which the British and French attempted to appease Hitler and the Nazis by ceding to Germany the parts of Czechoslovakia that had recently been invaded and annexed by the Germans. Czechoslovakia viewed this agreement as a tremendous betrayal, especially on the part of the French, who had a strong military pact in place, in which each country pledged to come to the aid of the other were either of them ever invaded. Those on the Left in France also viewed this agreement as a betrayal of their ideals and of the ideals of the French nation, and The Rules of the Game was conceived and made in the wake of this perceived betrayal of the French people by their rulers.

The Rules of the Game was made before the actual outbreak of World War II, at a time when it would have been impossible to anticipate exactly how the war would go. Almost anyone, though, could tell that all of Europe was in crisis, and many of the more astute observers felt that this crisis had been made more serious by a lack of leadership on the part of an irresponsible ruling class that had become more concerned with pursuing its own pleasure than in providing leadership to the society from which they so profited. The Rules of the Game should be read as Renoir’s own response to this situation, even though himself sometimes claimed that he intended The Rules of the Game, not as a commentary on the tense contemporary political situation, but as a light entertainment that would provide some escapist relief from that situation.

In point of fact, the film’s social commentary begins even before the film itself, with the seemingly innocuous on-screen reference to Le Mariage de Figaro. This play is indeed a classic French comedy, but it is well known for its portrayal of the ruling aristocracy as corrupt and decadent—something, indeed, that would eventually lead to the French Revolution. In fact, virtually everything in this film has political undertones related to the contemporary situation in France. For example, French audiences in 1939 would have no doubt received the mention of Lindbergh at the beginning of the film with the full knowledge that Lindbergh, only a fw months earlier, had visited Germany in October of 1938 and received a medal given him by Hitler’s chief lieutenant, Herman Göring, on behalf of Hitler himself[4]. As a result, the very name of Lindbergh would, by the time The Rules of the Game was released in July 1939, have extremely negative political intonations in a France that was so threatened by Hitler’s expansionism, which had begun with German support for the fascist side in the Spanish Civil War, the annexation of Austria in March 1938, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939[5].

Within minutes of the film’s beginning, described above, Christine has consulted with Robert, and Robert has gone off to visit his mistress, Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély), attempting (rather unsuccessfully) to break off their relationship. By this time, then, we have already met the film’s most important characters and have some idea of the relationships among them, though we will not meet many of the secondary characters until the principal characters all repair to Robert’s country estate, La Colinière, for an outing the frivolity of which would have been very clear to a French audience in 1939. That outing will include numerous scenes that indicate the decadence of this group of wealthy members of France’s elite, though the film also makes crucial use of their working-class servants, who know them well and see through their superficiality.

This superficiality is a trait that was often observed in the bourgeoisie of the time, and it is worth noting the extent to which the film, by refusing to focus on any one character, lets that class, especially its upper echelons, be the real “protagonist” of the film. It is also worth pointing out that, while Robert carries an aristocratic title, this title has little real meaning other than as a superficial sign of social status. Robert is thoroughly bourgeois, despite his title, though he is depicted as being old-fashioned and as having a fondness for the past, as in his collection of clockwork dolls, music boxes, and vintage musical instruments. More than anything, Robert’s aristocratic title indicates the way in which France’s haute bourgeoisie seemed to wish they were aristocrats and often to model their behavior on the prerevolutionary aristocracy.

It might be noted, incidentally, that Robert is depicted as part Jewish, one of his grandfathers having been a German Jew. The film, though, makes little use of this fact: the servants do comment on it, but don’t seem greatly concerned, while the other bourgeois characters don’t seem unconcerned with this fact at all. It should be noted, incidentally, that Marcel Dalio, the actor who plays Robert, was himself Jewish. Dalio would flee France ahead of the German invasion in 1940, eventually coming to Hollywood, where he acted in (mostly small) character roles in a number of American films during the war. It is likely that Renoir made Robert part Jewish simply because of Dalio’s casting, just as he seems to have made Christine Austrian because he was committed to casting the Austrian actress Nora Gregor (who also happened to be Jewish, though Christine is clearly not) in that role.

This casting, incidentally, was the object of some controversy, which perhaps gives us some insight into the political situation in France at the time. In particular, right-wing (antisemitic) critics in France viewed the casting of Jews (one of them a foreigner) in these key roles as an affront and as part of what they saw as Renoir’s determination to insult the French ruling class. But this casting has other interesting potential implications as well. As Vanneman points out, French audiences would have immediately interpreted Christine’s Austrian origins as a reference to Marie Antoinette, the Austrian princess who came to Paris in 1770 to marry the man who would become King Louis XVI in 1774. At the time, Marie Antoinette was widely resented in France (where she was often referred to as the “Austrian bitch”), and she is still known to this day for her frivolity, extravagance, and clueless disregard for the plight of the common people of France. Her (probably apocryphal) line “Let them eat cake,” in response to the pleas of the people of Paris that they had no bread to eat, has become the stuff of legend. Meanwhile, if Christine is Marie Antoinette and Robert is thus the equally out-of-touch Louis XVI, then the link between the prewar France of the 1930s and the prerevolutionary France of the 1780s (already made in the reference to Beaumarchais at the beginning of the film) is strengthened even more.

Meanwhile, in using a double class perspective, Renoir, among other things, provides us a reminder of the way in which lower-class characters have traditionally been so under-represented in French (and other) culture. Importantly, though, he doesn’t simply idealize his working-class characters as the opposites of their corrupt masters. Instead, he gives them many of the same foibles as the bourgeois characters, even though they do seem to have a bit more life to them. The lively Lisette, for example, might seem to be a flirt and a tease, but she actually does so in a playful way that contrasts sharply with the behavior of Christine, who also flits from one man to another, but in a deadly serious, even somber way. The comically vivacious Marceau, meanwhile, contrasts with Jurieux, his upper-class counterpart, in very much the same way, his only half-serious pursuit of Lisette standing far apart from the overwrought and “dignified” attempts of Jurieux to win Christine away from her husband, while nevertheless remaining as decorous as possible.

The real role of the working-class characters in this film is not to suggest that they are somehow more authentic or down-to-earth than their pretentious bourgeois masters. It is, instead, to suggest the extent to which the servants of the film have been so thoroughly brainwashed by the bourgeois ideology of their masters that they accept as natural the fact that these masters have so much while they have so little. Indeed, and perhaps even more important, they accept the bourgeois point of view as the natural one so thoroughly that they attempt to adopt the same worldview, mimicking the behavior of their masters in their own behavior—which is the real significance of the way Renoir has mirrored his bourgeois characters with their working-class doubles[6]. These working-class characters, far from feeling a sense of solidarity with the trade unionists and factory workers who are their true peers, instead see themselves as part of the world of their bourgeois masters, even when they criticize these masters for perhaps not being bourgeois enough.

The most telling example of this phenomenon occurs in the dinner scene in which the servants discuss their masters, passing their own very bourgeois judgments on them. One of them, for example, reminds the others, somewhat disapprovingly, that Robert is a “yid,” the grandson of “a Rosenthal from Frankfurt.”[7] Antisemitism, indeed, had long been a significant problem in France by the 1930s, as had been demonstrated in the notorious Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s, when a Jewish officer in the French army was wrongly convicted of treason, his conviction clearly coming largely from antisemitic prejudices against him. By 1936, the French socialist Léon Blum, whose political career was partly inspired by the Dreyfus affair, rose to become Prime Minister of France in 1936–1937, but antisemitism was still a force in France, and Blum wound up in the Buchenwald concentration camp during the war. In this sense, Robert can also be seen partly as a figure of Blum: he has been able to achieve a high position in French society, but he is nevertheless the object of only slightly submerged prejudices.

Robert can also be seen as a sort of Othello figure. Shakespeare’s Othello achieves a high position in the Venetian army and marries the daughter of a Venetian senator, yet remains dogged by insecurities and by the feeling of being an outsider, because he is a “Moor” (a Muslim from North Africa) and a former slave. Robert’s own insecurities, which are so central to the plot of The Rules of the Game, can be explained in very much the same way. He is, no doubt, very much aware of the way people whisper about his Jewish heritage behind his back, quite conscious of the fact that his wealth and prestige cannot fully shield him from prejudice and naturally concerned that a heroic figure such as Jurieux might be able to steal away his wife. This awareness, incidentally, might also explain why Robert—with his collection of racist dolls and his odd, Orientalist ideas about Arabs—seems to be the film’s most racist character, as if he wants to de-emphasize his own marginality by marginalizing others.

The film’s key figure in terms of Renoir’s critical treatment of the domination of the film’s working-class characters by bourgeois ideology is Schumacher, who functions structurally in the film as Robert’s double and who clearly sees himself in that way. Schumacher’s insecurities arise primarily from class—even though he thinks of himself as the lord and master of the woods of La Colinière, he knows full well that Robert is the real master. Indeed, it should be noted that the three men he either attempts to kill or actually kills are either working-class (Marceau) or outsiders who exist only on the margins of bourgeois society (Octave and Jurieux). Embittered by the knowledge that he can never be a true master (note how passively he accepts Robert’s abuse), Schumacher attempts to exert his patriarchal authority in any way that he can, whether it involve killing animals, catching poachers, or (most importantly, in terms of the plot of the film) dominating his frolicsome wife, who has (unfortunately for Schumacher—and eventually for Jurieux) rubbed elbows with Christine and her bourgeois circle extensively enough not to be impressed by Schumacher’s crude, puffed-up working-class masculinity. One can only speculate that she must have been married off to him when she was quite young, only later coming to be rather embarrassed by the match she has made.

It might also be noted that, when Schumacher is first mentioned in the film, it is by Robert, who employs the French pronunciation of the name. But the Austrian Christine responds by correcting the pronunciation to the German one. Granted, many people in France (especially in the Alsace region that borders on Germany) have Germanic names, but this moment surely calls attention to Schumacher’s possibly Germanic heritage and subtly suggests that he, too, is an outsider. Moreover, he is a German outsider, whose violence disrupts the placid and insulated world of the French elite, just as the German Nazis were already threatening to do.

Finally, it should be emphasized that The Rules of the Game is a very intricate film. Thus, even though it is fundamentally built around opposed pairs (Robert-Schumacher, Christine-Lisette, Jurieux-Marceau), there are also a number of complications to this scheme. One of them is Octave, the sad clown who transcends these oppositions. Another is the fact that there are also other pairings beyond the obvious ones. For example, Schumacher and Jurieux are also linked as a pair, both because one ultimately kills the other and because neither of them comfortably resides within the class milieu to which they are assigned in the film. As a woodsman, a man of action and nature, Schumacher never quite fits in with the faux-refined servants in the house, which further connects him to Jurieux, a man of action and absolute sincerity who stands apart from the decadence of the effete bourgeois characters around him. And Schumacher is also paired with Marceau, not only because they both pursue Lisette but because Marceau is also a man of the woods who clearly does not fit in with the other servants in the house.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that, despite its strong critique of the contemporary French society, The Rules of the Game is not mean-spirited. “Everyone has their reasons,” as Octave says at one point, and all of the characters in this film seem to have a certain amount of justification for their actions. Some critics, in fact, have felt that Renoir is too generous with his characters, especially the bourgeois ones. Thus, Vanneman complains that the film seems rather too fond of most of its individual characters, thus diluting its satire.

“Renoir, speaking of the film’s reception in an interview from the early sixties, says that he intended the film to be a portrait of a society that is ‘rotten to the core,’ a hackneyed phrase that he repeats three times. But later he says that he wants us, ultimately, to love his characters, which surely represents his true feelings.”

Vanneman may have a point, though I ultimately disagree with it. I would argue that Renoir is generous with his characters because he sees them as the products of the society in which they live, and it is this society and its bourgeois ideology and habits that have made them what they are. Thus, it makes sense that Renoir would have sympathy for his characters. They are not villains who have created the problems he identifies in the film; they are themselves the victims of those problems.


Cardullo, Robert J. “Jean Renoir, The Rules of the Game, Reputation, and Revisionism.” Romance Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 4, 2012, pp.247-256.

Copeland, Edward. “It’s Not Force of Habit.” Edward Copeland’s Tangents, 17 September 2007, Accessed 10 February 2021.

Ebert, Roger. “The Rules of the Game.”, 29 February 2004, Accessed 8 February 2021.

Faulkner, Christopher. “The Rules of the Game: A Film Not Like the Others.” Film Analysis: A Reader. Edited by Jeffrey Geiger and R. L. Rutsky, W. W. Norton, 2005, pp. 300–17.

Faulkner, Christopher. The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir. Princeton University Press, 1986.

Sesonske, Alexander. “The Rules of the Game: Everyone Has Their Reasons.”, 15 November 2011, Accessed 11 February 2021.

Vanneman, Alan. “Who Do You Love? Jean Renoir’s Rule of the Game Reconsidered.” Bright Lights Film Journal, No. 60, May 2008. Available on-line at Accessed 8 February 2021.


[1] Renoir was appalled by hunting and could bear to film the hunting scenes himself.

[2] The shooting of Octave is directly linked to the hunt scene when Marceau tells Octave that Jurieux, when shot, “dropped like an animal in the hunt.”

[3] But note the opposed view of Cardullo, he believes the The Rules of the Game should be read as a relatively light comedy and not as serious social and political comedy. Cardullo’s view is decidedly in the minority, however, and strikes me as arising from his fundamental antagonism to political cinema.

[4] Lindbergh’s sympathies with the German Nazis would become even more apparent later, when Lindbergh would campaign extensively in America to try to prevent the United States from entering the war against Germany. This campaign would end when the U.S. finally declared war on Germany in December of 1941.

[5] Note, however, that the action of The Rules of the Game is stipulated to be occurring in November. However, given the mention of Lindbergh’s flight (which took place in May 1927) as having occurred twelve years earlier, this could either be November of 1938 or November of 1939, the latter of which would mean that the action is actually set slightly in the future relative to the release of the film. This setting would thus place the action two months after the German invasion of Poland triggered World War II in September 1939, an occurrence that the film does not seem to anticipate.

[6] Marxist theorists of ideology, such as Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, have pointed out that convincing the working class to accept the ideology of the bourgeoisie is precisely the way the bourgeoisie, far outnumbered by the working class are able to maintain their dominance in capitalist societies.

[7] There may be a bit of an inside joke here, given that Dalio had played a Jewish character named “Rosenthal” in Renoir’s The Grand Illusion.