Jean Renoir is best known for writing and directing a pair of towering masterpieces made two years apart, Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939). Both films defy lazy characterization; neither has an obvious protagonist or clear central conflict, and both are more concerned with character, behavior and social norms than conventional plotting or abstract ideas.
Yet as meandering and startling as they are, there is nothing impenetrable or mystifying about them. Renoir gives us an insider perspective into strange situations, showing us sides of human nature that we might not have guessed, but which are entirely persuasive and recognizable.
Grand Illusion is ostensibly but not exactly a war film; Rules of the Game is seemingly but not quite a comedy of manners. In a way, each is the antithesis of its apparent genre; Rules of the Game has been called a tragedy of manners — and, while many war films are anti-war in their ideology, Grand Illusion could be called an anti-war film in content and form. Ironically, where Renoir’s comedy of manners is savage, bitter and brutal, his war film is humane, gracious and hopeful, as well as melancholy. Both titles are opaque enough to fit either film equally well.
What happened between the two films was the growing inevitability of World War II. In 1937, when there was still some hope that Europe might back away from the brink of an even more destructive conflict, Renoir made a compassionate film about the first World War — or, rather, about the men who fought in it, and the European world in which they fought, and all the things that united and divided them: things that seldom aligned with the borders between countries. In 1939, with war looming, Renoir made an angry bedroom farce about folly, duplicity, cupidity and unhappiness.
The filmmaker was the son of the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and the tableaux of Rules, from couples wooing to social gatherings to the hunting party, are not far removed from the idylls of the elder Renoir’s paintings. But Rules exposed the sordid underbelly of this world; Grand Illusion, despite its wartime setting, is spiritually closer to his father’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Asked what he was trying to do in Rules, Renoir reportedly said, “I don’t care.” With Grand Illusion, it may not be much easier to say what he’s trying to accomplish, but there is no doubt that he cares.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.