LA REGLE DU JEU (THE RULES OF THE GAME), Jean Renoir, 1939


Robert is married to Christine but is having an affair with Genevieve. Christine succumbs firstly to the fervent attentions of Andre, before professing her love for Octave. Octave, despite carrying a torch for Christine, is courting her maid Lisette. Lisette is married to Schumacher, and as well as her liaisons with Octave, has extra-curricular trysts with Marceau.

In explaining the intricate love-lives of the people in his milieu, Octave (played by Renoir himself) utters the famous line that, “The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons.

If everyone has their reasons, what happens to morality? Not to mention free will? That is to say that if everyone has their reasons, the particular set of circumstances which bring an agent to undertake any action must in one sense mean that it is entirely reasonable to assume that they could not have acted in any other way than they did. Therein, one is merely conditioned by the particular ‘rules of the game’ in any given social framework. This appears to bear out the illusion of free will. And indeed, Renoir’s characters, rather than being living embodiments of free will liberated by their choices, seem the polar opposite – trapped by inevitability.

Renoir himself indicates an anguished awareness that we can never wholly fathom the quality of our own intentions or judge the extent to which they illuminate or darken our reasoning. We may imagine ourselves to be lucid and free on the one hand whilst plunging ever deeper into personal or collective self-deception on the other. In a 1966 interview, he explicitly affirmed his own understanding of these principles:

Renoir: People are not convinced by arguments. They are convinced by the sound of a voice. For example, I’m sure the people who followed Hitler weren’t convinced by what he told them. I’m sure it was the little man’s strange personality.

Cahiers: The magical side?

Renoir: The magical side! I think that convincing people is magic. People think that one convinces with arguments, with logical reasons. It’s not true. Logic never convinced anyone. Absolute truth is absolutely invisible.

Cahiers: And Socrates’ dialogues?

Renoir: Ah! I’m sure it’s the same thing. There was a magical side. Because Socrates’ reasons are excellent, but the truth is that if one cares to, one can respond to them, one can oppose them. But I’m sure that the element that convinces us, in what we have of Socrates’ dialogues, is probably a kind of magic in the writing. It’s in every writer in fact. It’s by means of the magical side that one can reach the reasonable, or the reasoning side. Of course it’s a paradox, but paradoxes are true. In any case, they have as much chance of being true as logical truths do. [1]

Given this paradox and these equivocal conditions, on what basis does philosophy proceed? Indeed, on this view, one cannot objectively prove why the good magic of Socrates is better than the bad magic of Hitler, or why it is worth spending time reflecting on La Règle du Jeu. The difference the film makes is more than a matter of taste; it is a truth that has given definition to historical experience that is itself an irreducible fact of that experience. The world revealed by the film is more real than the indifferent or ideological worlds it displaces because it still offers purchase for a collective exploration; in the long run, good magic sustains the scrutiny of dialogue and reflection in a way that bad magic can’t. It is this dialogical orientation that gives philosophy its radical motion and marks it out as an infinitely rigorous task. In betting against its misrecognition, philosophy assumes that our desire for truth is always turning bad magic good, widening our horizons while honing in on a singular reality. As bitter as it might sometimes seem, philosophy is driven by the faith that human life is a happy accident or gift: however rarely or reluctantly we reflect on our encounters with truth, they never cease to testify that the world is, in the words of Walt Whitman, “different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” [2]

Bash Khan

[1] Renoir on Renoir: interviews, essays, and remarks, Jean Renoir. p.121. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1989.

2] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” in Malcolm Cowley, ed. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) p.30. Penguin Books. New York, 1977.


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