Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game has been part of the film canon for so long that it’s valuable to remind audiences how gloriously alive and just plain fun it is. Low comedy walks hand and hand with tragedy and beauty throughout; the film is frothy one minute, nearly apocalyptic the next, and so you’re never fully allowed to gather your bearings. The Rules of the Game has a tone that could be symbolized by the escalating merry-go-round that prominently plays into the climax of Strangers on a Train—up and down, all around and seemingly totally out of control. The film, as Paul Schrader says in the Criterion edition’s liner notes, represents all of cinema’s possibilities in 106 minutes.
That controlled chaos is partially driven by anger and despair. Renoir often said that the film was a response to his frustrations with the bourgeoisie at a time in which France was clearly imperiled. In the late ’30s, France had just surrendered Munich to the Nazis as a gesture to cool mounting threats of invasion, a gesture that was clearly fated to fail. The unmistakable indifference and self-absorption of the wealthy elite—just one reason this film hasn’t aged one iota—in the midst of this potential disaster fueled Renoir’s anxiety. But Renoir, like most major artists, wasn’t content to mount a polemic, and probably couldn’t even if he wanted to. One of cinema’s most appreciated humanists, Renoir couldn’t help himself; he had to assert even the most misguided and contemptible people’s humanity.
The heart of Renoir’s genius was his gift for hiding that genius. Expertly controlled, The Rules of the Game plays as one huge happy accident that might’ve been caught on the fly over the course of a long drunken weekend. Everything is just right, and the performances and individual moments are so remarkably alive that you accept the elaborate structure and symbolism as organic. Robert Altman clearly learned a few things from Renoir, particularly in his use of deep camera focus and sound design, and I wish that more contemporary filmmakers would follow suit. There’s no mystery as to why so many directors rip off Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese these days, as you can, even in their great films, see the directing take place. It’s the director as the entire show. Renoir was usually most of the show himself (he generally collaborated on his scripts, and served in uncredited capacities in a number of other ways), but his technique was so masterful that, as Pauline Kael once said, it was subsumed into his art. The Rules of the Game, like all Renoir films, isn’t about the making of itself, and that artistic purity allows for profundity.
The film concerns a long weekend for a number of wealthy and famous French (with one notable exception) men and women at a large country estate. On paper, The Rules of the Game is a traditional drawing-room comedy that follows the varying romantic trade-offs of a number of seemingly bored and vain individuals who gradually reveal themselves to be in the kind of extreme pain that we, in our frustration, generally only associate with people who’ve fallen on more conventionally hard times. But money doesn’t relieve certain existential and biological needs, and Renoir follows these characters as their pettiness slowly washes away to reveal despair. This despair, however, doesn’t absolve them of the role they’re playing in their country’s disillusionment and potential undoing, and it’s that toughness of contradiction that gives The Rules of the Game its ambiguous bite.
The film’s exposition is elegant and efficient. In the opening, the pilot Jurieux (Roland Toutain) has just completed a long flight across the Atlantic that rivals the accomplishment of Lindbergh. The press is surrounding Jurieux, prying him for headline-ready sentiments, and he promptly squanders a glorious moment with a peevish lashing out. Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Gregor), whom he supposes to be the love of his life, hasn’t deigned to show up for Jurieux’s triumph. That she’s married to Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) is of no consequence, an illustration of the blinded self-entitlement that informs the entire film.
Jurieux’s good friend Octave (Renoir) is also Christine’s childhood friend, and, as compensation, Octave assures Jurieux that he can get him invited to Robert’s country house that weekend. That promise, idly made, involves a number of careful negotiations on the part of Octave, which leads to a wonderful series of sequences in which Octave, whom we learn is a failed artist living on the donations of friends such as Robert and Christine, must play the parts of the loyal friend as well as of the good-natured bumbler who’s out to help another. Octave collapses into Christine’s bed with her, assuring her of her responsibility to a man she perhaps led on a little. The disconcerting intimacy of their moment, an instance of foreshadowing, is a quiet testament to Renoir’s tonal mastery. But Octave can’t be distracted, moving on to cater to Robert’s ego and insecurity, which isn’t so hard considering that Robert’s own mistress, Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély), will also be at the country house that weekend.
Renoir establishes all of that in about 20 minutes, leading the film to the country house where this world will be shaken up and expanded upon. With the wealthy characters in play, we’re now free to learn of the help that subtlety governs their masters’ lives. We’ve already met Christine’s private maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), whom we learn is married to Robert’s groundskeeper, Schumacher (Gaston Modot). Schumacher, a hopeless and moving prig, is displaced and adrift in a world that thinks nothing of casually trading lovers. Schumacher’s devotion to Lisette is stifling and sexless, exasperating her libidinous tendencies (she’s had a thing with Octave already), which leads to her pairing with Marceau (Julien Carette) a poacher who Robert inexplicably hires as indoor help. The inexplicable is telling: Robert feels an immediate kinship with Marceau that’s emotionally logical, as Marceau is the sort of spontaneous ruffian that can play to a pampered man’s idea of the road not taken.
Virtually every scene in the film is striking in one way or another. I’ve seen The Rules of the Game probably 10 times and my jaw still nearly literally drops at the brilliance of certain shots, such as a number of Renoir’s compositions of crowds in the ominous party scene that constitutes much of the last third of the film. And the hunting scene, justly praised, is a daring deviation from the generally misleading amiability of the tone that pays off beautifully; a rapid near-montage of rabbits and pheasants being slaughtered more or less for idle sport allows Renoir to tap his rage without entirely tipping his hand. One rabbit especially (you’ll know it when you see it) dies a prolonged horrible death that ranks as one of the most disturbing instances of destruction in the movies. That it serves a dual function—as a foreshadowing of a major character’s needless death—is simply another illustration of the density of Renoir’s construction.
These aren’t idle details, as the film is really about the potential destruction of society. But The Rules of the Game is so graceful with its volley of character trade-offs, both romantic and platonic, that you can’t help but fall in a kind of love with it, a qualified love that still understands the sourness, the sadness, that gently informs every part of the film. We come to see the characters and their lifestyles as a tragic charade. The rules of the game are arbitrary stabs at pretend morality that can foster truly immoral behavior, as the rules of the game twist people up and confuse them. And the confusion that these games (ones we’ve never abandoned) inspire, which feeds into an unending inner regard, can destroy us. Even people who love The Rules of the Game, indisputably one of the greatest movies of all time, can overlook its toughness, which is, as an essayist acknowledges in the Criterion liner notes, even obvious in the fashion that most people misquote the most famous line. As Octave, Renoir never said, “Everyone has their reasons,” a sentiment that implies a certain benign, detached understanding of foible. Octave says something far tougher to entirely resolve: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons.”
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs from February 28—March 10.