The Rules of the Game
I’ve seen Jean Renoir’s beloved classic, “The Rules of the Game,” twice now over the years, and for the life of me, I’m not quite sure I see the reason why it has found an almost-permanent home on Sight & Sound’s critic’s list of the greatest films of all-time over the decades. It is a delightful, subtle farce, filled with romantic intrigue, but is that really enough to merit a place just below the likes of “Citizen Kane” and “Vertigo?” In terms of visual strategy, Renoir’s film feels well composed, but hardly on par with either of those films, or others over the years. Could it be that the film’s tumultuous debut just before WWII broke out, and the cuts Renoir made after said debut, have given the film a legendary status that critics feel the need to overpraise it? Regardless, my job is to present my personal feelings on the film, not poke holes in the experiences others have had with it, so let us begin.
The film begins with a French pilot touching down after a flight across the Atlantic. It comes a decade after Charles Lindbergh made his own, but is no less perilous, so Andre Jurieu (Roland Toutain) is greeted as a hero by the media and adoring fans at the French airport. One person not there to greet him, however, is Christine (Nora Gregor), the Austrian woman who he loves, and who supposedly inspired his trans-Atlantic flight. When he makes a spectacle of himself while talking to reporters, complaining about her absence, he has made both of them look foolish in a very public way. You see, Christine is the wife of the affluent Marquis Robert de la Chenaye (Marcel Dalio), and she may have inadvertently led Andre on, for she loves her husband. She is chastised for this by her old friend from Austria, Octave (Renoir himself), but forgiven by her husband, probably because he has a mistress himself in Genevieve (Mila Parely). As a show of good faith, Christine and Robert invite Andre to their property in the country where they will be hosting a party and hunting trip. The well-off and aristocrats spend their time hunting, ignoring the help unless they need something, and getting on without a care in the world. Meanwhile, the people waiting on them have conflicts and intrigue on their own, especially Robert’s gamekeeper (Schumacher, played by Gaston Modot), whose wife, Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is Christine’s handmaiden. Schumacher and Lisette only see one another when Robert and Christine come to the country, and it’s a difficult thing for their marriage, but when a poacher (Marceau, played by Julien Carette) is caught on the hunt, and impresses Robert enough to invite him to the house, things become infinitely more complicated for the couple when Marceau becomes smitten with her.
Renoir’s film is at it’s most intriguing when it centers in on the two romantic entanglements laid out above. These are not romantic complications that result from passion so much as convenience, and the ways society works. Christine needs to have it explained to her by Octave, who is a friend of Andre’s, why her chaste affection for him was misinterpreted, but understands the rumors surrounding her husband’s own dalliances, and almost accepts them. Andre, meanwhile, tries to respect Christine’s marriage to Robert as best he can, only taking action when it is precipitated by Christine. Meanwhile, Robert and Genevieve carry on with their affair, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of passion to it; it feels more like a routine, a societal ritual they must go through, than something more meaningful, even though it feels like the end of Robert and Christine’s marriage when Christine spots them, through binoculars, kissing as the hunt ends in the middle of the movie. That leads her to think closely about Andre, and wonder whether she was wrong to dismiss his attention so quickly. Things are simpler, however, in the dynamic between Schumacher, Lisette and Marceau. While Schumacher and Lisette are married, they only see each other when Robert and Christine come out to the country. They appear to be in love when they are together, and Lisette makes the appearance of a happy wife, but she feels more enamored by Christine and her needs, and the playful advances of Marceau. Schumacher is a deathly serious man, who takes Marceau’s advances as something to snuff out, and at one point during the party, he tries to by chasing Marceau with a revolver. His actions get him fired by Robert, but misunderstandings will lead him to do a terrible thing when Christine, having taken a walk with Octave, misses out on important information that could have saved a life, but instead will ruin several, while others will get away with a slap on the wrist, all because they understand the rules of aristocracy.
“The Rules of the Game” has many wonderful sequences, from the hunting scenes in the middle, which sets several wheels in motion, to the masquerade party, where the action reaches it’s peak, to the final moments, when two cases of mistaken identity will lead to a death, and lives changed forever. Renoir and his collaborator Charles Koch have created a screenplay with a lot of meat on it’s bones for actors to chew on, but importantly, the performances feel palpable and real rather than over the top and showy. No one hits a false note or a flat one, and it keeps us watching through all 106 minutes of this film, which caused a stir with the ruling class at the time for the way it portrayed them, but now feels like a “comedy of manners” where manners are treated with all the respect of the “hunt” in the film- people take pains to put the odds in their favor, taking the “sport” out of the activity all together.