'Rules of the Game' ('Les regles du Jeu'): Cannes Review

The Rules of the Game - H 2014
Happiness Distribution

The Rules of the Game - H 2014

Engaging piece about youthful concessions and confrontations with the dominant social system.

Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard's documentary casts light on young job seekers receiving mentorship at a HR agency in northern France.

Five years after producing The Arrivals -- a compassionate and well-researched documentary exploring how refugees navigate the asylum-granting institution in France -- Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard have returned with an equally empathetic look at yet another marginalized group in their home country. Charting the progress of young job seekers at a mentoring program in a human resources agency over eight months, Rules of the Game is again a thoughtful exploration about how the disfranchised are made to conform to norms they find difficult to comprehend.

Bories and Chagnard have produced a piece that is urgent in its mission, nonjudgmental in its depiction of its subjects and entirely theatrical in its mise-en-scene and dialogue -- a remarkable feat, given how the documentary comprises almost completely of scenes taking place within one single branch office of the nationwide recruitment firm Ingeus. Drawing from nearly 150 hours of footage, the filmmakers pace their selected scenes well, with the conversations between the youngsters and their professional advisers revealing how much they feel at odds with the machinations that would allow them to locate work in a 21st-century capitalist world.

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Though bowing at the fringe ACID showcase at Cannes, Rules of the Game is sufficiently riveting and technically potent to land bookings at documentary and indie festivals worldwide, perhaps even going beyond the exposure their last piece attained at IndieLisboa and DOKFest Munich, among others. The film is already slated for release in France in January.

The sardonic tone of the film's title is mirrored by its structure: Divided into chapters, each part begins with an intertitle -- backed by baroque music -- summarizing what the protagonists will be and do next: "Kevin rebels," for example, or "Lolita is going to snap." It's a style that the maverick Lars von Trier has employed in many of his films.

This audience-distancing device certainly heightens the dramatic effect of the exchanges; as it turns out, it's a very appropriate approach given how these conversations resemble verbal duels, as the professionals spar with their charges and try to convert them to high-sounding concepts of "accentuating" their strengths in their "professional projects" (that is, hunting for a means to a living).

The presence of irony doesn't take away the humanity and seriousness which Bories and Chagnard bring to the issue at hand. It would certainly be easy to jibe at either the clinical way the instructors lecture about the ways a person should market oneself, such as an expert's claim that 13 seconds is what it takes for an employer to make up their minds of applicants; it might also be easy to tut at what can be seen as the young men and women's flawed personalities, ranging from extreme passivity, near-toxic cynicism towards everything to overestimations of their abilities.

But Bories and Changnard rarely if ever make such calls: Rules of the Game makes clear how its subjects are all players on a bigger stage, and it's the system which is wrong in the first place.

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As the young job seekers react differently to the circumstances, the taut drama emerges -- and many a nugget from these luckless young people reveal some basic truths taken for granted in social discourse: These are economically disadvantaged people who don't know how to "sell themselves" in job interviews or to be constructive and communicative to other people after they were taken advantage of too many times.

Chagnard's camerawork and Stephanie Goldschmidt's editing deftly collects all the sharpest reactions and extraordinary wit (and sometimes venom) coming out of the exchanges at the HR center -- a result of the filmmakers' ability to put their subjects at ease. Rigorous in their mise-en-scene, the film is akin to a conversational piece. It's as engaging as fiction and with moments even stranger than it.

And this is the power of Rules of the Game: the drama twists and turns, revealing how these yet-to-be-fully-nurtured young psyches age and watching their lives and worldviews change. Generating edge-of-seat tension to the viewing experience, Bories and Chagnard have produced a winning piece. 

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (ACID), May 22, 2014
Production Companies: Ex Nihilo, with Les Films du Parotier
Directors: Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard
Screenwriters: Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard
Producer: Muriel Meynard and Patrick Sobelman
Director of Photography: Patrice Chagnard
Editor: Stephanie Goldschmidt
International Sales: Doc & Film International

In French
No rating; 106 minutes