"This entertainment, with the action taking place on the eve of the 1939 war, does not claim to be a study of mores. All the characters are purely imaginary." The film belies its title card because above all else it is a study of the social "rules of the game."

The hunt combines codes of cultural reference, actions codes, and symbolic codes. Schumacher orchestrates the hunt, directing the upper class guests to their blinds, the beaters scaring the game toward the hunters, and the pickup and display (not seen) of the dead game.

The animals at home in their natural habitat.

The beaters, working class men. Noticeably loud is the clack of wood sticks on tree trunks.

Jackie likes to hunt. Christine makes a sour face to show she does not. The implication is that Christine is more allied with nature and has a soft heart.

Images present the increasing panic of the animals and finally the twitching of the dying rabbit.

After the hunt, there is crosscutting between two locations. Christine tries out a pair of binoculars, sees a squirrel and then Robert and Geneviève. She does not understand they are breaking up. The viewer fills in the causal chains, since the flow of images "saturates" the narrative with mechanisms to create meaning.

Symbolic pairs:

André and Schumacher are the purists and fools. One kills the other.

Lisette and Christine, untamed female eros.

The doubled Robert and Marceau. Robert thinks a harem would be a good idea. Marceau says the secret to wooing a woman is to get her to laugh.

Saint-Aubin and Geneviève are upper class adulterers who would play by the rules.

Octave, played by Jean Renoir, is rumpled, avuncular, and a friend. He has possibly long been in love with Christine.

Everyone but Christine understands how much Christine is dependent on money, Robert's money.

Octave is reliant on rich friends like Robert for handouts, and like André somewhat childlike.

The gun is a major prop in the film, symbol of impending death. Note that at the denouement, Schumacher does not lose his job. Robert says to the gathered guests that Schumacher thought he was going after a poacher and accidentally killed André.


The codes of cultural reference

"Resumes of common knowledge, the cultural codes provide the syllogisms of the narrative...with their major premise, based always on public opinion ('probable,' as the old logic said)...."

Barthes makes this observation as he discusses why the hapless lover dies in Sarrasine. Like André Jurieu in The Rules of the Game, Sarrasine is killed because he is ignorant of or perhaps willfully ignores the complexity of social mores. What triumphs for the other characters in both novella and film is the reality principle, which for them turns out to be composed of social reality and institutional codes. The cultural codes which "form the premises of the major syllogisms of the narrative" in The Rules of the Game relate to the title of the film. Renoir presents explicitly the rules governing marriage and adultery in high society, the rules of the hunt, the rules governing relations between masters and servants, and the rules governing peer relationships (courtesy, friendship, honor, jealousy, gossip) among masters and among servants. Renoir's major theme here is about the suffocating nature of received ideas; the "rules of the game" have an all-pervasive, determining influence over whatever might be natural so that the natural becomes lost. Thus the film as a whole, in its entire narrative structure, criticizes through art the received cultural codes shaping both society and its own art.

Most people read a film as they read a novel, not attending to the social and cultural conventions, the artifice, behind the actions and words presented. Thus, even though The Rules of the Game raises the theme of social convention vs. nature, it still presents the flow of its own discourse as natural, as "life.

"Although entirely derived from books, these codes, by a swivel characteristic of bourgeois ideology, which turns culture into nature, appears to establish reality, 'Life.' 'Life' then, in the classic text, becomes a nauseating mixture of common opinions, a smothering layer of received ideas." (p. 206)

Within the flow of the narrative, the codes of cultural reference inverse their bookish origin and are implanted in the words and actions of the characters as something natural or proverbial. For example, in this film the characters comment on how lovers should and do behave (the social lore of love and lust) as if these were ideas everyone shared; the audience is not led to challenge such assumptions. Explicitly described in the film is the way nature must submit to society, and the most smoothly coordinated social event is the hunt, which leads us directly to criticize aristocratic abuse of Nature, per se. Yet in the way things "happen," just as in any narrative film, the social events themselves flow along "naturally." We accept what happens among the characters as probable, likely, or natural, as "life."

In studying a film we should examine those cultural codes which the text explains (the rules of the game), which it assumes we know (masculinity/femininity, the psychology of persons of certain types, ages, nationalities, professions, etc.), or which the authors or characters just mention in passing ("We've all come here to hunt....not to write our memoirs."[12] [open endnotes in new window] Renoir carefully details the daily rituals and the codes of behavior between the de la Chesnayes, among the servants, and between the two groups. We expect a different pattern of behavior from Robert toward Christine than from Schumacher toward Lisette. The de la Chesnayes' marriage relies on codes of elegance, entertaining, courtesy, and hospitality. The servants' marriage is partially controlled by their work situation, with Lisette preferring to be with her mistress Christine in Paris than with her husband at La Colinère. (Lisette is a conventional name for the maid-confidante in French comedy.) When Schumacher gives Lisette a present of a warm cloak (code of practicality), she dismisses his gift as not pretty. When he chases her would-be lover Marceau with a gun (code of jealousy for lower class males), she pacifies him by saying she'll do anything he wants (psychology of the clever, dominated wife), even go back to his small town in Germany. This reflects the code of rural vs. urban mores, as Schumacher wants to get Lisette where she will not be able to flirt with other men, and also the code of ethnic psychology: rural German vs. urban French.

In general, in narrative film, the audience calls upon its knowledge of a vulgar code of the psychology of human types. In The Rules of the Game the house guests at La Colinère quickly distinguish themselves as types. The General belongs to the ancien regime. The ingenue Jackie is a university student, which is supposed to account for her lack of sexual sophistication. Octave and an older woman factory owner are the jolly fat people, and the woman's conversation draws on codes of popular science and medicine, diets, and card games. A young homosexual male character enacts a highly coded role in the tradition that homosexuality in fiction is supposed to represent upper middle class decadence. Geneviève, presented in her own apartment earlier as the Paris sophisticate, is here forced into the stereotypical role of the cast-off lover. André Jurieu as well, even though the house guests receive him as a modern hero, enacts the role of a desperate lover.

Geneviève's whole character is sketched very quickly in an early sequence, which relies on our coded knowledge of the worldly woman. Whereas Christine wears white silk or ruffles, Geneviève is first seen wearing a black dress with a geometric lace design across her chest; she is smoking a cigarette held in a cigarette holder. She also entertains a group of men, serves mixed drinks (code of modernity), and cites a cynical line from Chamfort on the definition of love (code of "looseness"). When Robert comes to her apartment (geographical code—we see Trocadero from the window), she wears an ornate Chinese kimono and receives him in a room containing Buddhas, potted plants, and cut flowers (codes of excess, exoticism, chinoiserie, artifice, art, flowers). When Geneviève presents her guests mixed drinks, that is part of the code of modern hospitality. The codes of modern life must be contrasted with the codes of tradition if we are to grasp the full savor of the General's cliché (as a member of the "ancien regime") which he repeats twice in reference to Robert: "That La Chesnaye doesn't lack for class, and that's becoming rare."

Actually the whole modern world enters the film only schematically. In the first scene we have rapidly presented a variety of codes intended to indicate "Modern Life." These are the codes of radio transmitters; those of Paris geography—Le Bourget; of crowd psychology; of cheers— "Bravo"; of newsworthy events; of the techniques, vocabulary and psychology of news reportage—both on the part of the interviewer and the interviewees; of contemporary history— the Lindbergh flight; and of the techniques of police control. Just as the airplanes flying over Paris in World War I provide that jarring image of modernity in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past to remind us that, in fact, aristocratic mores are a thing of the past, so too this first airport sequence, packed with assumptions about modern life, establishes the parameters of the game in The Rules of the Game, the film then ending with the General's words about the loss of aristocratic standards.

What Renoir refuses to do, and this is one of the virtues of the film, is to say that the modern (André) is better than the aristocrat (Robert) even though the film indicts aristocratic decadence. The contrast between aristocratic and modern, particularly as expressed by the General's cliché and by André's inability to understand Christine's position, functions to show that neither the aristocrats nor the "moderns" can understand each other except in terms of trite language and conceptual baggage. Indeed, the film presents this contrast between aristocrat and modern particularly ambiguously since Robert de la Chesnaye is a nouveau riche aristocrat, a Jew, and thus an outsider himself—which fact is harped on by some of the servants, who are more purist in such matters than their masters. To further complicate our attitude toward Robert, at the end he understands more than the other characters, yet he will smoothly cover over André's murder as an accident.

In general, we read the semic codes, the level of adjectival amplification, on the level of the single frame or across small gestures. As soon as we see a setting or a personage in film or in a photograph, we "label" it; that is, we rapidly interpret the semes insofar as they relate to characterization, mood, and the development of the plot. The codes of cultural reference work themselves out on a grosser scale, especially the dialogue. Often the two codes mesh. We can observe the art, architecture, gardens and statuary in La Colinère and derive the adjectival semes, "French aristocrat" or "dignity." But we can also examine in more detail how Renoir introduces and uses established cultural codes related to art and to the manor house or country estate.

Studying film with videotape would allow one to go back and notice the implantation of cultural codes which would otherwise pass quickly by as "natural." We can readily distinguish those codes which are repeated often enough to become stereotypes (André's excess of despair as a frustrated lover), but we often miss smaller ones that are not reinforced by an essential relation to the developing enigmas. Once we understand how much a film utilizes information and assumptions formulated anterior to the film, it becomes irrevocably clear that what cinema captures is social truth and institutionalized knowledge, not unmediated reality.

The action codes

Action codes tell us what is considered "normal" action in a culture and also how to present that action in a representation: certain details and the chronological ordering of these details seem necessary or appropriate in literary fiction and film. Action codes not only establish what actions are conventionally prescribed in certain situations (e.g., a kiss in a romantic scene) but also how much of each action must be or is shown. At the end of S/Z Barthes presents a list sequentially tabulating all the actions that were clearly definable in Sarrasine, and this list lets us see how conventional the range of actions in fiction is.

We know that very few complex actions—for example, surgery or cooking a meal—last as long on the screen as in real life. An exception is a filmed conversation when it is necessary for the audience to hear the whole thing. Even here, film technique rests on certain cultural assumptions. The conventional use of a series of close ups to film a conversation assumes that the audience's knowledge of the "rules" of how a conversation flows from one person to another will provide the continuity between shots of two individuals, each seen separately.

Two other common types of action sequences in narrative film are what Christian Metz calls "ordinary" and "episodic" sequences; in the former, bits of unnecessary action are eliminated; in the latter, representative stages in the development of an event or relationship are shown.[13] Obviously the decision about which actions to show in the various shots of a sequence depend on previous portrayals of action in film as well as audience expectations about what is "representative" or "unnecessary."

All film theorists from Eisenstein and Pudovkin to contemporary writers on film semiotics have seen a close relation between editing codes and the representation of human actions. Such a relation is most obvious in invisible editing or action cutting, but more recently scholars such as Laura Mulvey, Daniel Dayan and Raymond Bellour have demonstrated how the whole foundation of realist film editing—field and reverse cutting—is based on cultural assumptions about point of view which is based in film on the human glance.[14]

In The Rules of the Game many actions are presented schematically, particularly the moments of courtship. In only one larger action, the hunt, do we see many of the component parts detailed; here, too, each of the many participants—both aristocrats and servants—are depicted doing only a few representative, clearly defined things. Of all the codes, the action codes are the hardest to analyze in detail on first viewing because they seem so ordinary and taken together, create such an illusion of continuity that they "form the main armature" (p. 255) of the "classic" text. Yet the presentation of cinematic action is never more than artifice. Whoever sees a film

"amasses certain data under some generic titles for action (stroll, murder, rendezvous), and this title embodies the sequence of actions; the sequence of actions exists when and because it can be given a name, it unfolds as this process of naming takes place, as a title is sought or confirmed." (p. 19)

The action codes, both in terms of the human actions presented within a shot and editing on the basis of action, often seem "natural." Because the narrative is "saturated" with mechanisms to create meaning, the audience fills in the causal chains, assuming continuity when really the film presentation is discontinuous. The seeming continuity in classical prose fiction and narrative feature films comes from the fact that the actions serve multiple functions: they have a purpose in the narrative and they have a connotative and symbolic value. Furthermore, these actions gain in sense and continuity as the traditional narrative makes them serve a double function: we see each action both as determined and as determining something else. In other words, actions, like the characters' choices, are overdetermined.[15]

Symbolic codes

A fifth level of narrative coding which Barthes discusses, in addition to enigmatic semic, referential (to establish knowledge) and action codes is that of psychoanalytic or symbolic coding. Symbolic codes, or the "play" of symbols, as Barthes prefers to say, work themselves out in art in terms of motifs common to the culture as a whole. Thus psychoanalytic criticism of art or auteur analysis of film often seeks out themes, motifs, or archetypes. These symbolic structures are extremely fluid and do not reflect social rituals and expectations as obviously or as directly as the referential, semic, and action codes do.

Barthes uses Freud's language, but his analysis of the symbolic "economy" of the text comes directly from Claude Lévi-Strauss. The latter, in his Structural Anthropology, asserted that we should study language, kinship, and economics in linguistic terms and interpret society as a whole in terms of a theory of communication. To cite Lévi-Strauss:

"This endeavor is possible on three levels, since the rules of kinship and marriage serve to insure the circulation of women between groups, just as economic rules serve to insure the circulation of goods and services, and linguistic rules the circulation of messages. These three forms of communication are also forms of exchange which are obviously interrelated (because marriage relations are associated with economic prestations, and language comes into play at all levels). It is therefore legitimate to seek homologies between them and define the formal characteristics of each type considered independently and of the transformations which make the transition possible from one to another."[16]

According to Barthes one can enter the symbolic field of the text on any of three levels: language, kinship or sex, and commercial economy. Language operates on the basis of an economy that is "usually protected by the separation of opposites" (p. 215), i.e., paradigms. The major rhetorical device which carries the symbolic motifs of the text is the antithesis, each term of which is exclusive and fully meaningful in its own right. Middle-ground figures transgress the antithesis, "pass through the wall of opposites" (p. 215), and abolish difference. Barthes also analyzes the symbolic field of the narrative by discussing the economy of genres and the economy of bodies, which Lévi-Strauss would call kinship codes; as Barthes says, their "parts cannot be interchanged." (p. 215)

Barthes considers two ways that capitalist economic relations are symbolized in or rather form the "symbolic economy" of Sarrasine and his observations can also be applied to The Rules of the Game. The characters deal with each other personally by means of informal "contracts," and the narrative as a whole treats capitalist (vs. aristocratic, land-based) wealth as nouveau riche. In both language and commerce, paradigmatic barriers let us understand the bases of equivalencies and exchange, which are the foundation of all meaning (under capitalism such exchange depends on private property). In the classical narrative, representation depends on an order of just equivalencies, by means of which we can regularly distinguish contraries, sexes, and possessions.[17] Yet only when an excessive element enters which interrupts the normal circulation of the antitheses, sexes, property relations, or contracts that the narrative begins. It is the transgressor that impels the narrative toward its climax or catastrophe. Symbolic and narrative requirements in a work of fiction finally merge, for narrative resolution not only means the final and irreversible "predicating" of the subject and the end of the story (for there is no more to say) but also the end of the symbolic search, what Barthes calls a symbolic closure or return to order.

In The Rules of the Game one can note a whole series of related symbolic antitheses which generally reinforce each other and which have a long tradition in the history of Western literature and art. Such antitheses include the following pairs: civilization vs. nature; sincerity/lies; ingenuousness/ sophistication; simplicity/complexity; naive eros/eros socialized; organic life/artifacts; life/death; fecundity/ emptiness; outdoors/indoors; lower/ upper; servants/masters; the male camp/the female camp; richness/poverty; power/dependence; property/ wildlife; childishness/maturity; the greenhouse/ the manor house.

In addition, the characters are paired with doubles among the masters and the servants. The inflexible idealist Jurieu has his parallel on the servants' level in the inflexible gamekeeper Schumacher, who enacts his ritual bond with Jurieu by executing Jurieu. The poacher Marceau and Robert de la Chesnaye are specifically paired: Marceau shows Robert the art of poaching; Robert promotes Marceau to Marceau's long-dreamed-of role as a household servant; Marceau has dreams of elegance in a uniform, and in the film Robert is the male who is most meticulously dressed. Both involved with mistresses and jealous rivals in one sequence, the two men share their views on women.

The servant Lisette is inseparable from Christine for she identifies with Christine completely. As the critic Philipe Esnault says, Lisette devours Christine with her eyes.[18] It is because Lisette loans Christine her cape when Christine goes off to the greenhouse with Octave that Schumacher thinks he is shooting his wife's lover. Also, Saint-Aubin is a double for Geneviève. After Christine discovers her husband's affair, she does not turn to André, as we might expect, but rather throws herself at one of the house guests, Saint- Aubin. He is otherwise an insignificant figure and one might wonder at his role as Christine's potential lover until his symbolic function as Geneviève's double is perceived: both are the accepted adulterous partners from the aristocrats' peer group—that is, for adultery within the "rules of the game." If she had had an affair with Saint- Aubin, Christine would not have left the group nor her social/ marital obligations—as she had planned to do with either Octave or André. In the same way, Robert had conducted an affair with Geneviève yet had felt fully responsible to both his marriage and his social ties. Thus the structure of doubles can be diagrammed as follows:

Upper-class master paired with a similar servant:

  • André and Schumacher—Purists and Fools
  • Christine and Lisette—Untamed Female Eros and Love
  • Saint-Aubin and Geneviève—Erotic Partners in Adultery Who Will Play by the Rules
  • Robert and Marceau—Male Lovers Who Are Socially Adept

Not in this pairing is Octave, who at various points in the narrative acts as the "transgressor."[19] In terms of class he is neither master nor servant, but a bohemian hanger-on in both the artistic and aristocratic worlds. (In Renoir's original outline for the film, Octave's economic dependence on the de la Chesnayes was made more explicit.) That Octave, the middle class intellectual, might be in a position to love either a servant, Lisette, or an aristocrat, Christine, also leads to André's death, for Schumacher thinks he is killing Octave meeting Lisette.

At first glance, because of André's speech over the national airwaves denouncing the absent Christine, it might seem that André is the interloper, transgressing the marriage bonds between Christine and Robert. Yet this conflict is settled rapidly; Christine's sincerity leads Robert to break off his affair with Geneviève. Indeed the whole opening incident could have led to closer relations between Christine and Robert. But the film would have ended there. The transgressor who moves the narrative is Octave, who demands that Christine and Robert invite André to La Colinère. Once at La Colinère, André is depressed at this friendly but formal reception by Christine and would leave except that he is encouraged by Octave to stay. Finally, Octave, who all along has been identified with Christine's father and who has offered her avuncular, asexual friendship and protection, succumbs to her declaration of love and her desire to flee her husband's milieu. Octave symbolically transgresses incest taboos. Lisette senses this and expresses her strong disapproval when Octave is about to elope with Christine, saying, "But imagine those two living together. I think that young people should live with the young and the old folks with the old." Reverting again to his role of offering Christine asexual love, Octave sends André off in his place and in his coat, causing not only André's death but also his own curse, his permanent exclusion from Christine and Robert's milieu.

Visually, Robert represents the ego, meticulously dressed for the right social occasion and showing on his face an extremely sensitive response to every social situation. Lisette and Christine—dressed in ruffles, filmed with halo lighting, shown smiling and in moments of sheer exuberance and joy—are pure feminine egos, a potential fecundating principle and the prizes sought after by men. In fact, they are dependent on both men and the social structure dominated by men. A principle that Lévi-Strauss states as an unquestioned given is that "in human society, it is the men who exchange the women and not vice versa."[20] The Rules of the Game partly deals with the two women's efforts to exert their emotional independence and to escape the limitations placed on that independence.

Geneviève in her dress and comportment represents eros socialized. She knows her place. Marceau and Schumacher competing for Lisette are the erotic id and the superego in opposition. Octave and André are the two types of anal figures (as Norman O. Brown described the anality of the bourgeoisie in Life Against Death [21]). Octave, fat, unkempt, shaggy, is not only the avuncular protector of Christine but also a childlike figure, thus fit to be the friend of the petulant, idealistic, compulsive, and adolescent Jurieu.

Symbols are more diffuse than semes, which as we have seen are commonly accepted cultural indicators of qualities or adjectival "labels." As Barthes says in Elements of Semiology, a symbol is an inadequate representation, e.g., a cross does not adequately express all of Christianity. A seme, on the other hand, conveys a fuller sense of its signified. Octave's clumsiness is conveyed rather fully by the way he moves, the de la Chesnaye's richness by the objects in their apartment, the architecture of their homes. On the other hand, Octave's pleas for someone to help him out of his bear's costume symbolize his sexuality and say something about his coming emergence from an avuncular role to that of Christine's potential lover. Geneviève, the sexually free woman, can finally be prevailed upon to help him out of the costume but she does so begrudgingly and in the process throws him to the floor.

To a large degree the semes can be read synchronically, on the level of the single image or on the level of the shot. The symbols, however, especially in the working out of the antitheses, mediations and transgressions, proceed diachronically. Substitutions, such as those of figures serving as doubles, are worked out on the syntagmatic level, and are frequently metonymic substitutions in which the whole is represented by a related part. The dying rabbit in the hunt scene stands for helplessness: animal life and fertility; the sacrificial death of André Jurieu; Christine's softness and love.

Barthes also finds implanted in the text other symbols such as a child-woman figure or queen-servant relationships. Obviously in The Rules of the Game the hunt and the masquerade are symbol-laden episodes that need almost no dialogue. Barthes insists that both the semes and the symbols are multivalent and reversible, so that the seme, "richness," or the antithesis, "nature/ civilization," can be borne by any of the figures in the narrative in a multiplicity of ways. These reversals can be seen, for example, if we consider Christine's use of lipstick as "artifice" and Robert's rejecting Geneviève as his effort to act "sincerely" in his marriage — although Christine is otherwise often associated with naturalness and ingenuousness and Robert with sophistication.

Film and literature

Language is symbolic representation; cinema is primarily iconic. That is, the relation of word to object in writing or speaking is purely arbitrary, while cinema is built on photography, which renders a two-dimensional representation analogously similar to its object. In literature, the description of the human body depends on the fragmentation of a whole into its parts for the sake of metaphoric or connotative description in words; this necessary fragmentation influences the way the enigmatic, action, symbolic, and semic codes are worked out in literature; literary authors paraphrase other texts previously established in the same verbal (spoken and written) mode. A photograph offers us its iconic codes and its connotations all at once. In feature films, once the subject has been established by the enigmas, the setting or specific objects in that setting can fully connote a character even though that character is not on screen. Metonymy or the representation of the whole by one of its related parts is the major rhetorical device which carries symbolic and semic coding in feature films.

Christian Metz has demonstrated that the minimal syntagmatic unit in film is the shot; the discussion in this article of synchronous connotation on the level of the single frame is not intended to establish the frame as a complete signifying unit. Obviously much of Barthes' discussion of the relation between linguistic syntax and the literary narrative cannot be applied directly to film. Yet, because audiences receive the syntactic flow of shots and the editing in a film as "natural," one could also work out the ideological role of the shot in the way that Barthes describes the ideological role of the sentence. The shot often masks our awareness of how a film uses cultural codes. It rigidifies denotation, and "it yields meaning with the security of an 'innocent' nature: that of... syntax." (p. 264) Furthermore, since Metz demonstrates that all of narrative film's syntagmatic structures are dependent on intentionality or on the development of a "plot," one could well add a Barthesian analysis of film to Metz's analysis of film's major syntagmatic structures.[22] Just as a caption gives a preferred reading to a still photograph, so in feature films, as in classic literary narratives, the enigma "anchors" the connotations, actions, and symbols, and structures the cinematic sequence form itself.

Since Barthes is mostly concerned with language in its relation to narrative discourse and with the play of meaning across a number of semiotic codes of which verbal language is only one, his major methodological premises can well be applied to the study of film, which is still primarily a narrative art form. In addition his criteria for quality in traditional narrative art can help us evaluate popular culture, for Barthes does not build on some canon of great works but rather evaluates a closed narrative by its successful orchestration, integration, and manipulation of cultural and symbolic codes:

"...a "good" narrative fulfills both the plurality and the circularity of the codes: ceaselessly correcting the causality of the anecdote by the metonymy of the symbols and, inversely, the simultaneity of the meanings by the operations which lead on and use up expectation to its end." (p. 77)

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