The Rules of the Game, 1939, opens in Paris and then shifts to the protagonists' country estate, La Colinère. There's a subsequent cultural shift in the plot from indicators of modernity, e.g., a radio broadcast from Le Bourget airport, to actions based on a continuing but soon-to-be outmoded upper-class way of life.

Halo lighting, curls, flowers in the heroine's hair all connote femininity. Occasionally, the close-up of the woman arrests the action to present a moment of timeless beauty.

Christine de la Chesnaye and her maid Lisette.

Marquis Robert de la Chesnay with his prize mechanical toy. He is Jewish, which gives a political inflection to this French film on the eve of WW2.

Marceau (right) is a newly-hired servant who flirts with Lisette, much to the dismay of Lisette's husband, the gameskeeper Schumacher (on Marceau's left).

Schumacher gives Lisette a warm and waterproof cape as a gift. She calls it unattractive. The cape re-enters the film as an important prop at the climax.

Two major events involve all the guests at La Colinère and advance the plot, both in terms of the action and the symbolic codes. They are the hunt and the costume party. The party offers many opportunities for disguise and deception.

Because Jurieu is killed by gunshot at the end, the hunt in the middle of the film, with the death of the little twitching rabbit, offers an example of "meaning proliferating by layering." In addition, the hunt is class-defined as a rich person's sporting event, with guests invited to the country estate to participate in it.



S/Z and Rules of the Game

by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 12-13, Winter, 1976-77, pp. 45-51


I wrote this essay at the end of 1973 and early 1974, just at the end of my graduate studies in comparative literature and shortly before participating in founding Jump Cut. Film and media studies did not yet comprise an established academic discipline, and I did much of my graduate work, leading up to a dissertation on Brecht and Godard, as “independent study.” Futhermore, young film and literature scholars then often sought new methodologies—structuralism, semiotics, Marxism—and eschewed or sidestepped their mentors’ approaches, which were often based on organic unity, artistic excellence, or the history of ideas. In Paris in the summer of 1972 while doing research for the dissertation, I purchased Roland Barthes’ S/Z, which combined two of my preferred teaching methodologies—the older one, close textual analysis, and the more recent one, ideological analysis, particularly of gender and class. I was eager to share information with my peers about this book and wrote two essays on it in relatively quick succession, one on “Teaching the comparative analysis of novels and films” in a literary journal, Style (no. 9, fall 1975) and “S/Z and Rules of the Game” in Jump Cut (nos. 11-12, 1976). A quick glance at the notes page of this essay will indicate how mostly European writing was shaping young film scholars’ work at the time: Barthes, Umberto Eco, Stuart Hall, Laura Mulvey, Louis Althusser, and Christian Metz. Thus my work fit in well with that of my peers, who appreciated new theoretical work as well as a left political approach to media studies.

Furthermore, I wrote this essay before videocassette recording in VHS or Betamax formats was available, and thus I often relied on the script of La regle du jeu from L’Avant scène du cinéma (1965). In preparing the illustrations for this reprinting of the essay, I found many more details in the Criterion DVD that have proved my points in other numerous ways. I mention this because we pay too little attention to the conditions under which media scholarship is/has been done, as well as the conditions under which film and television study is taught. Whereas today I could not imagine writing such an essay such as this without the image clarity and pause function of the DVD, that’s how almost everyone did film studies at the time.[1a] [open endnotes in new window]

Jump Cut editors from its earliest years had an interest in what was then called “cine-structuralism” or “semiology,” and in our second year, 1976, in the double issue, nos. 12-13, we published a special section, “New Theory, New Questions.”  It contained the following essays, which I list here to indicate the publication context of my own essay:

  • A long introduction by Chuck Kleinhans discusses hostility to new theory in the United States and the reasons for it. Such a dismissal derives partly from the theory’s availability only in French and partly from its assumption of left radical thought.
  • “Moving on from Metz” is a book review by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith of Christian Metz’s Language and Cinema. Nowell-Smith lays out the basic aspects of linguistics that could be applied to cinema and then calls for a potentially more effective non-linguistic semiotics.
  • In “S/Z and film criticism,” Judith Mayne discusses the attributes and history of “realist” fiction, which Barthes would call a “moderately plural” or “readerly” text.  In contrast, Barthes holds up the ideal of the “writerly” text, an open-ended modernist style which challenges the meaningfulness and coherence of discourse.
  • S/Z and Rules of the Game” by Julia Lesage. I consider my piece a companion piece to Mayne’s. Writing separately, we cover very different aspects of the same work.
  • “Aspects of British feminist film theory: a critical evaluation of texts by Claire Johnston and Pam Cook” by E. Ann Kaplan offers a substantive description of pioneering writings in British feminist film theory not then widely available in the United States. These texts were critical of realist cinema and advocated the creation of a feminist counter-cinema, avant-garde and disruptive of conventions. Kaplan argues as well for both realist documentaries and fiction films that would serve the women’s movement in some way.
  • The Nightcleaners, part one—Rethinking political cinema” by Claire Johnston. This reprint from the British feminist journal Spare Rib reviews a major UK example of political counter-cinema.
  • Moses and Aaron—Straub and Huillet’s Schoenberg” by Martin Walsh and
  • “Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet interviewed—Moses and Aaron as an object of Marxist reflection” by Joel Rogers: Walsh draws on Brechtian proposals for politically critical drama, distanciation, and emphasizing the materiality of the text to examine how a pair of modernist cineastes have filmed the Schoenberg opera Moses and Aaron. In an interview, the two filmmakers discuss the relation of their films to those of other European filmmakers who also claim to use distanciation for political purposes. These two essays continue Jump Cut’s long-term interest in counter-cinema and the avant-garde in general.
  • “Christopher Caudwell—his aesthetics and film” by Eileen Sypher summarizes the work of a Marxist culture critic killed in the Spanish Civil War.

In this context it becomes clear that our interest was far less in explicating masterpieces of cinema than in explaining how film worked. I did not even guess that my choosing Rules of the Game as a text with which to demonstrate the usefulness of Barthes’ methodology in S/Z would raise eyebrows and evoke criticism. Within this essay, I just stick to the text and do not discuss other important aspects of the film—the film’s historical context, its contentious reception in 1939, the instability of the actual film text and its restoration, its cinematography, and the career and genius of its director, Jean Renoir. In fact, I think all these are important aspects of the film, and many scholars have written well on these topics. However, for this essay, perhaps with the impudence of youth, I just chose what I thought was the closest cinematic parallel to Balzac. Since the methodology of S/Z could be applied to many film and television fictions, many other texts would serve the same purpose.

In reprinting the essay, illustrations and captions have been recently prepared but the text remains as published originally, except for the correction of a few typographical errors.

Julia Lesage, 2013

S/Z and Rules of the Game

My encounters with S/Z

It is not often that a film teacher comes upon any book that will entirely change her approach to teaching film. Before I read S/Z by Roland Barthes, my own method in teaching basic film or film and literature courses on the college level was the same method which I had learned — a combination of aesthetic history and analysis of the expressive uses of cinematic technique. However, my critical interests in Marxism and feminism required more precise ways to define and teach about the interface of society and art. For example, the first wave of women's film festivals led me to want to teach more about women in the arts, but I soon faced the limitations of the concept of "the image of..." as an approach to teaching film courses, the content of which could be about any oppressed group.

Barthes' S/Z was a book I wanted to buy as soon as I had leafed through it in the French edition before it had been translated. It has a fine summary outline in the back and it has a lot of "gimmicks" and sections which engage the reader wherever she starts — in the beginning, middle, or end. I knew it would be useful for me even before I read it because it emphasized interactions between artistic and social conventions. Furthermore, Barthes was clearly motivated to write the text for a radical reason — to promote an understanding of those conventions which regularly articulate bourgeois ideology in literature and the visual arts. By raising unconscious mechanisms to a conscious level, the progressive critic and teacher has a specific end in mind, to give people more control over their own lives. Knowledge is power.

In my previous study of the work of Jean-Luc Godard, I had come to accept as a given Godard's axiom that all films are fiction — documentaries, too. All films which have a narrative framework subordinate their elements to a certain end. I was aware of the pitfalls of the so-called objectivity of documentary realism, especially that of cinema-verite, for all the viewer of a documentary finally has of the original "pre-filmic" situation is a highly structured film. Barthes' treatment of literature in S/Z foregrounds the mechanisms of literary "realism." To display how the realist text works, he de-emphasizes a purely internal narrative analysis and emphasizes the ways that elements from the writer's milieu have entered and are used on the microlevel of the text, especially in the sense that a narrative propels the reader along on a cumulative, time-based experience. If we compare his methodology to cinematic analysis, S/Z uses a strategy that resembles a shot- and single-frame analysis of a film's visual track. Because of Barthes' detailed look at precisely those types of things in literature that film critics look for in film study, I have tried to apply his approach to teaching and analyzing film. And such an application of Barthes' methodology to both classroom teaching and film criticism has proven fruitful both for me and my students.

S/Z and its five codes

S/Z reveals a teacher's mind. In this book Barthes not only demonstrates a way to apply semiotic, structuralist, psychoanalytic, linguistic, and poetic concepts to the analysis of a single literary work but also sets foreword a detailed, concrete example of his method. He traces out the conventions and cultural codes in a single work of short fiction, Balzac's Sarrasine. At the same time, he explains the theoretical basis of his approach to enable others to do the same critical work themselves. Throughout his career, much of Barthes' scholarly work has functioned implicitly as a polemic against and explicitly as a corrective to current critical practice. In this case, with S/Z, he rejects the deadly finality of an explication de texte or an Aristotelian or New Critical analysis of Sarrasine. Barthes uncovers no definitive "meaning" for the work, but rather he opens it up to multiple readings. Indeed he implies that the work of the critic/teacher is to teach not only how a tightly plotted work gives the illusion of completeness, but also the many ways in which that illusion of completeness is but one determinant, albeit a primary one, of the text.

Barthes' work as a whole is explores how art mediates social assumptions and cultural patterns from the artist's and audience's milieu. Since cultural objects and patterns, such as dress, food, and drink, artifacts, traffic, architecture, etc., are the extra-cinematic material which forms the very stuff of narrative film, as do conventionally determined forms of verbal and gestural expression and human social interaction, film students can follow with interest Barthes' theory, summarized in Elements of Semiology and drawn upon in S/Z, about how such artifacts and conventions are part of entire coded systems which follow laws first traced out in the field of linguistics.[1] S/Z itself suggests whole new ways to think of a film as being simultaneously an art object and an index of culture. To open up cinema to both a semiotic and rhetorical analysis in the way Barthes opens up literature in S/Z would lead to an increased understanding—in political, historical, anthropological, and cultural terms—of how film narrative, image, and sound track incorporate and also shape cultural conventions.

Barthes labels codes and conventions as they function in a work of art. As he emphasizes in keeping with his larger purpose as a teacher of literature, when we can name these codes and conventions, we perform a critical act, make sense out of a work, and gain control over previously unconscious ideological mechanisms in art, our psyches, and our milieu.[2] He emphasizes that later rereading a work allows us to "multiply its signifiers," that is, to find new perspectives on it, new understandings about how the work itself is constituted. He wants readers to learn to name and define not only gross narrative and ideological structures but also to work "back along the threads of meaning." (p. 12)

"To read is to find meanings, and to find meanings is to name them, but these named meanings are swept toward other names; names call to each other, reassemble, and their grouping calls for further naming." (p. 11)

In S/Z and other works, Barthes presents a number of concepts which seem to have a direct applicability to film study. In Writing Degree Zero he first introduced his fruitful distinctions between "classic" and "modern" literature, i.e. between open and closed narrative works, distinctions which he maintains in S/Z where he chooses to analyze a closed narrative, a specifically "classic" text.[3] This analysis in S/Z can be extended to feature films since most commercial film narratives depend on conventional narrative structures. Indeed, in the twentieth century with the sweep of Modernism in other arts, primarily film has given new life to the tightly plotted, closed narrative form so beloved in the 19th century.

In discussing the application of S/Z to film study, I shall concentrate on one film which has a complex narrative but which ties up all its narrative threads at the end— Barthes' criterion for a "classic" text. Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game is an exemplary text and is also readily accessible and reasonably well known. Indeed, this film offers one of the closest cinematic parallels we have to Balzac's work, since Renoir's themes about bourgeois society come straight from the tradition of the realist bourgeois novel and bourgeois drama. However, just as Barthes analyzed one work in order to point out pervasive trends in the bourgeois narrative tradition which are still existent, largely unconscious, and "ideological," most other films with a closed narrative form could have been used as well.

Barthes uses the term "code" in a deliberately looser way than do film semioticians such as Christian Metz or Raymond Bellour, who draw heavily on linguistic-oriented models of analysis.[4] Barthes' use of the word "code" is closely related to concepts of social and artistic convention and the rituals of everyday life. In this, he is close to Umberto Eco, who presents a general theory of codes in A Theory of Semiotics (Eco seems heavily influenced by Barthes).[5] According to Eco, conventions are limited and generally predictable within any given culture, for culture structures its members' lives and even their very perceptual capacities through various sets of preestablished (yet historically changing) intellectual and behavioral models. It is only because of cultural convention that people define what they perceive, assign meaning to it, and respond significantly. Certain intellectual structures, such as language, are codes based on rigid rules. Others, such as visual or iconic codes, rhetorical ones, and—to a lesser degree—psychological ones are looser and vary to a greater degree across history and across cultures.

In daily life and in art, conventions establish what is probable, plausible or obvious. They provide whole clusters of seemingly natural details. The fact that these details and the conventions behind them are unremarkable means that ordinarily we do not notice or discuss them, that they are lost until named. What Barthes wants most to analyze in S/Z are the social and artistic codifications shaping that phenomenon we call "realism." What this notion of realism usually tells us is that there is some denotation, some external reality, some conclusion to which the literary or cinematic text necessarily points. An example of this is André Bazin's championing of film realism, especially the stylistic devices of the long take and deep focus cinematography, as providing "a window on the world." What Barthes teaches in S/Z is that there is only an illusion of "realism" in a narrative. The cohesive maintenance of that illusion depends on the integrated functioning of five levels of coding, all of which work together to suggest the plot's "meaning" (often signaled by the climax) and all of which suggest other previously established cultural meanings beyond themselves.

Barthes distinguishes five main areas of cultural coding and calls the codes "voices." He traces the play of these codes within a single narrative work. He says that each of the codes forms a braid or lacework, one strand being picked up, worked into the major pattern and then left for a while, only to be returned to later; the interstices of the strands "are positions held and then left behind in the course of a gradual invasion of meaning." (p. 160) By themselves, the codes are merely expressive; but as they are intertwined artistically, they are both manipulated and act upon each other to form that kind of meaning which results from a narrative work of art.

The five levels of coding that Barthes traces out in Sarrasine and which I shall discuss in detail in their applicability to film function as follows:

  1. The Enigmatic Code structures the plot proper by implanting certain key questions or enigmas and then delaying the answers or giving false leads — thus giving us a story.
  2. Action Codes establish what actions are conventionally prescribed in certain situations and how much of each action is, must, or must not be shown. They let us know which actions are important or appropriate to present in a narrative.
  3. Referential Codes enter the text through explicit references to the established knowledge of the time, such as science, medicine, history, literature, or the visual arts; on a more vulgar level, the artist may also refer to popular assumptions and common sense—"what everyone knows."
  4. Semic Codes let us label persons and places in the narrative in an adjectival way. They "characterize" the character as a person with certain attributes and certain motives; these adjectival attributes (such as "undecided," "resolute," etc.) are the "semes."
  5. The Symbolic Code could also be called the psychoanalytic structuring of the text. Barthes draws primarily on Sigmund Freud and Claude Lévi-Strauss to describe the symbolic "economy" of a narrative and defines the major symbolic rhetorical device in literature as antithesis.
Opening enigma: the heroic pilot denounces the woman not there to receive him. ... ... She's listening to the radio announcement at home. How will she react?
Action codes. Little of André Jurieu's landing is shown. First the plane in the air ... ... and then on the runway amidst the waiting crowd. Just a couple of shots.
Codes of cultural reference. Here, the visual track shows contemporary technology, a location audio-setup for breaking news. Here, the soundtrack gives the announcer's explicit comparison of Jurieu to Charles Lindbergh.
Semic codes: Schumacher the gameskeeper, a man of action, military-like, goes after a poacher. Octave, a rumpled bourgeois, flirts with the maid Lisette. Unlike Schumacher, who is Lisette's husband, Octave is spontaneous and warm-hearted.
Symbolic code of masters and servants, upstairs-downstairs, the idle rich ... ... and the servants, who have designated tasks to maintain the lifestyle of their masters.

All five of these codes are bound by the heavy weight of convention and tradition, resulting from centuries of what Barthes calls the "what's already been written and done." The semic, symbolic and referential codes function more flexibly in the narrative than do the enigmatic and action ones, the enigmatic being the most rigid, and the symbolic the most fluid of all. The codes determine specific moments in the text and suggestively reflect back to anterior moments or forward to later moments in the narrative proper. They also relate to other texts and to the author's general ideological, historical, and cultural background. All five levels are connotative and suggestive. Barthes uses a spatial metaphor to describe the relation between the way codes function sequentially in the text and the way they bear extra-textual meaning:

"Analytically, connotation is determined by two spaces: a sequential space, a series of orders, a space subject to the successivity of sentences, in which meaning proliferates by layering, and an agglomerative space, certain areas of the text correlating other meanings outside the material text and, with them, forming a "nebulae" of signifieds." (p. 8)

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