Renoir’s Films Explore Social and Political Themes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With such socially conscious films as The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir established himself as one of the world’s premier directors.

Summary of Event

When it premiered on June 4, 1937, at the Marivaux Cinema in Paris, Jean Renoir’s film La Grande Illusion (The Grand Illusion) marked the culmination of Renoir’s career as a French motion-picture director who explored social themes, expressed sympathy for workers, and criticized establishment capitalism. Renoir’s films before 1937 included Le Crime de M. Lange (1936; The Crime of Monsieur Lange), about a worker who saves a company and then kills the boss. Earlier, Renoir showed interest in the naturalistic tales of Émile Zola and Maxim Gorky, with a silent film, Nana, in 1926 and a talking film, Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths), in 1936. He made La Vie est à nous (The People of France), blatantly proletarian propaganda, in 1936, but it did not have a public screening in France until 1969. The Grand Illusion is a continuation of Renoir’s preoccupation with working peoples’ struggles against social and political tyranny. Set during World War I, the film sets forth a view of the future that makes heroes of an unlikely team, the mechanic Maréchal and the rich Jew Rosenthal. While a plea for peace, it is not altogether an antiwar film, because its heroes escape captivity to continue their struggle against their common enemies, the old order of European aristocracy and the German army. [kw]Renoir’s Films Explore Social and Political Themes (1937-1939)[Renoirs Films Explore Social and Political Themes (1937 1939)] [kw]Films Explore Social and Political Themes, Renoir’s (1937-1939) [kw]Social and Political Themes, Renoir’s Films Explore (1937-1939) [kw]Political Themes, Renoir’s Films Explore Social and (1937-1939) Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Jean Renoir[Renoir] Grand Illusion, The (film) Rules of the Game, The (film) [g]France;1937-1939: Renoir’s Films Explore Social and Political Themes[09360] [c]Motion pictures;1937-1939: Renoir’s Films Explore Social and Political Themes[09360] Renoir, Jean Spaak, Charles Fresnay, Pierre Stroheim, Erich von Dalio, Marcel Bachelet, Jean

La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), released in a cut print in 1939, was hooted by its first audiences, nearly lost when its original negative was destroyed during Allied bombing raids during World War II, and finally restored to something near its original length in 1956. Despite the film’s stormy beginning, its reputation grew tremendously over the decades until it became one of the world’s most critically acclaimed achievements in motion pictures. In the film, Renoir examines again the relationships of workers and owners, servants and masters, with a dashing hero who is killed by a jealous husband, a wealthy aesthete of Jewish ancestry who is married to a moralistic Austrian, and two complementary poachers—one a failed artist and the other a failed servant.

Both motion pictures were achievements of a distinctive style that has been praised as realistic and democratic. Deep-focus shots were made of scenes in which several events occurred simultaneously, allowing spectators to observe a variety of movements, characters, and complications in a single field of vision. Subjects intermingle, as war and captivity bring together men of contrasting social backgrounds in The Grand Illusion, and love throws together men and women of varying social classes in The Rules of the Game. Both narratives follow similar patterns: from prison enclosure to pastoral liberation in The Grand Illusion; from sophisticated urban hypocrisy to pastoral farce in The Rules of the Game. The director casts a cold eye on decaying values, but he also exposes a sympathetic understanding of the trials through which people pass as their values are tested and found wanting.

The Grand Illusion explores the ironies of a war in which the officers of the opposing armies may have more in common with one another than they have with the men who serve under their commands. Von Rauffenstein is a gentleman with training and tastes shared by de Boeldieu; when together, they often speak English, which is the language of the aristocracy and is not understood by the commoners. Von Rauffenstein is the commandant of a gloomy and massive castle used as a prison for French, English, and Russian prisoners of war. He is not happy to be a policeman, but he has little choice, since he is crippled and scarred from battle. Von Rauffenstein is forced, by his code of honor, to shoot de Boeldieu when the French officer helps his men to escape the German prison.

Maréchal and Rosenthal make their escape and nearly die of hunger and exhaustion, but they finally reach an idyllic (although not completely safe) haven in the farm home of a German widow, Elsa, and her little girl. The French soldiers are warmly received by this family of the enemy, and they celebrate Christmas together. Eventually, the Frenchmen continue their escape, despite Maréchal’s love for Elsa, and they succeed in crossing the border into Switzerland before a German patrol spots them. Several borders are crossed in the film’s symbolic use of realistic material, including the sexual borders that disappear when the prisoners dress as women to present a musical entertainment and, of course, the social and racial borders that are dissolved when the laborer allies himself with the Jewish bourgeoisie.

When de Boeldieu dies, von Rauffenstein cuts the blossom of his geranium, and by this gesture enhances the symbolic richness of the film. The Rules of the Game is full of such details, and it also includes a car wreck, a rabbit and bird hunt on a country estate, and a musical entertainment that concludes in a dance of death. The social texture of life in this motion picture is richly complicated, but moving across the boundaries of class distinctions are two profoundly interesting characters—the game poacher Marceau and the failed artist Octave, who is played by Renoir himself. The film complicates human relationships through the game of love, but it also analyzes the rules governing the game of civilization.

As a political statement, The Grand Illusion seemed to challenge militarist solutions to personal and social problems; indeed, some believed the film was highly pacifistic. Such an interpretation, however, has to take into account the sympathetic treatment of the soldiers as men doing their duties, sacrificing personal comforts, and devoting themselves to patriotism. In this respect, then, The Grand Illusion is romantic. Certainly, when de Boeldieu diverts German attention to assist the escapes of Maréchal and Rosenthal, de Boeldieu is performing a very romantic act of self-sacrifice.

To describe de Boeldieu’s self-sacrifice as a theatrical role in the grand manner would not be an exaggeration. Renoir frequently used the device of theater or musical performance as a visual metaphor within his films. This technique of self-reflection and self-commentary would be taken up with equal sophistication by younger directors, such as François Truffaut and Federico Fellini. Truffaut, certainly, and Fellini perhaps were both students of Renoir’s film style, against which they increasingly defined themselves.

It may seem odd to say that the self-reflective technique of theatricality within a motion picture is in a realistic style. The realism lies in the ostentatious claim by art to mirror reality, by drama to show an audience to itself, and by art to abstract the timeless from the temporal. Renoir’s theatrical metaphors perform these functions. The soldiers’ show in drag, followed by de Boeldieu’s grand operatic gestures of self-sacrifice (which he carefully directs and stages for maximum effect), enclosed by von Rauffenstein’s stiffly disciplined show of power, reveal a confidence that play and art reveal essential truths and at the same time can be instruments for individual freedom and personal integrity. Soldiers dressed as women are men expressing their sexual and romantic desires. Grand gestures of sacrifice focus on tragic heroes, allowing romantic ones to escape. Discipline without purpose becomes an iron prison of the spirit.

Mechanical motions, from phonographs to crippled soldiers, occur in counterpoint to organic development in The Grand Illusion (ironically presented in von Rauffenstein’s cutting the geranium blossom, as well as in the contrast between the massive prison and the idyllic farm). Similar counterpoint occurs in The Rules of the Game, but discipline is a source of integrity in that film, in which social order preserves individual identity from the anarchy represented by a thief (Marceau, a rabbit poacher) and an aviator (Jurieux, a solo flier). Although the film’s protagonist, Chesnaye, seems to arrange and explain events, he is able to do so largely because of the animating spirit of the artist Octave. The fact that Renoir played this part is surely a reason the film is so intriguingly successful as a self-reflective experience of art. Octave is nearly a victim of misunderstanding, but he is also a figure of animality (symbolized by his wearing of a bear costume), which unites people in an organic way. Octave is a complement to Chesnaye. Their relationship is a warm advance on the destructive one that marked the pairs in The Grand Illusion.

Still, audiences did not like what they saw in The Rules of the Game, perhaps because it told them they were decadent, without direction, and careless about the value of life. The film ends with Chesnaye excusing a murder and turning back to his lighted chateau after Octave has wearily moved into the darkness of the opposite direction. The ending sometimes left audiences feeling dislocated and torn apart at the center; many have noted that the film tends to separate form from substance and discipline from vitality. This joyless conclusion irritated the Nazis and Fascists condemned by the movie. Others, such as U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, saw something different.


The Grand Illusion won several prizes for Renoir, including one in Venice in 1937 for best artistic production and one in New York in 1938 for best foreign film. Most interesting, however, was the vote by an international jury at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 that ranked the film fifth among the best films of all time. The Rules of the Game also earned great respect when it was chosen as the third-greatest film ever made by an international poll of film critics in 1962. The latter film also earned the dubious honor of being hissed by its first audiences in Paris, banned by Nazis and Fascists, and praised by President Roosevelt.

Perhaps the most lasting impact of The Rules of the Game is in its portrayal of the triumph of the will to be, to endure, even when the game seems about to end and the rules are shown to be vulnerable to passion and to chance. Chesnaye, like a master of ceremonies, turns away from his audience at the end, and Octave moves into the audience as he moves into the darkness. (Renoir, like Chesnaye, turned away from his European audience and moved, like Octave, into an American one when he migrated to the United States during the war and later became an American citizen.) There is an affirmative consequence from these opposing movements, as the spirit of life disappears into the audience itself, where it can rejuvenate as it hibernates through the long, dark spiritual winter that is expected to follow (and did, in the war years). Such a residue of feeling, a calm beneath the passion spent, is more lasting because it is more realistic for living beings, moving through organic rhythms of light and dark, vigor and rest. Here is the major impact of the film, and of others directed by Renoir: entertainments end, ironies soften, and artists disappear through their art into their audiences. Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Jean Renoir[Renoir] Grand Illusion, The (film) Rules of the Game, The (film)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durgnat, Raymond. Jean Renoir. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. A masterful survey of Renoir’s life and work, with analyses of Renoir’s films in chronological order. Durgnat presents Renoir as a storyteller with a mind to share. Contains a bibliography, an index, and many photographs, both stills from the films and views of Renoir at home and at work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Jack C. “Golden Age of French Cinema, 1935-1939.” In A History of Film. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990. Sees Renoir’s career as peaking in the era when films by Jacques Feyder, Marcel Pagnol, and Marcel Carné drew on a rich literary, theatrical, and painting tradition. Political turmoil, with escapist tendencies, was reflected in their movies. Includes stills, a list of major films, and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faulkner, Christopher. The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. A demanding study of the origins of Renoir’s themes in political activity of the 1930’s. Faulkner employs techniques of ethnography to analyze many of Renoir’s films, including The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. Contains a bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leprohon, Pierre. Jean Renoir. Translated by Brigid Elson. New York: Crown, 1971. Presents Renoir as a painter’s son and a craftsman who matured during the 1930’s with three masterworks. The American Renoir is sketched as struggling to please Hollywood but eager to return to his sources. Contains excerpts of interviews, screenplays, essays, anecdotes, filmography, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mast, Gerald. “France Between the Wars.” In A Short History of the Movies. 3d ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1981. French experimental film of the 1920’s prepared for the triumphant films of the 1930’s. Analyzes The Crime of Monsieur Lange, The Grand Illusion, and The Rules of the Game. Surveys René Clair, Jean Vigo, Jacques Feyder, Marcel Carné, and Jacques Prévert. Contains an index and a valuable bibliography/filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Shaughnessy, Martin. Jean Renoir. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000. Written for the general public, this analysis of Renoir’s sound films summarizes the current debate over Renoir’s social views and places them in historical and political context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pechter, William S. “Radical Freedom: Aspects of Jean Renoir.” In Twenty-Four Times a Second: Films and Film-Makers. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Pechter sees a continuity of theme over thirty years of Renoir’s work. Failure to resolve conflicts between individual freedom and social commitments results in sadness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Renoir, Jean. My Life and My Films. 1974. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2000. Renoir’s autobiography is highly acclaimed as a model in the genre, and the director’s energy and spirit radiate through every page.

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Categories: History