Synopsis: When aviator André (Roland Toutain) returns to France after a record-breaking flight across the Atlantic, he is heartbroken to discover that the woman he did it for, Christine (Nora Gregor), is not there to greet him. Instead he finds Christine’s childhood friend Octave (Jean Renoir), who tries to convince André that winning Christine’s affections is a lost cause. To help his case, Octave convinces Christine’s husband Robert (Marcel Dalio) to invite André to a weekend getaway at his country estate, so that Christine herself can prove to André that her affections toward him are merely platonic. Meanwhile, Robert is hoping his troublesome mistress Geneviève (Mila Parély) will fall for the heroic aviator and be out of Robert’s hair for good. What will happen when the various volatile parties – and their equally hot-headed servants – finally collide?
When the CMBA announced the Movies of 1939 Blogathon, my first instinct was to write a review of Ninotchka, since my blog does shamelessly rip off its famous tagline in its title. But scanning the impressive list of films made in that legendary year, my eyes came to rest on Jean Renoir’s masterpiece of satire and cinematic technique The Rules of the Game, original French title La Règle du jeu, a film which inspired a passionate admiration in me the first time I saw it in film class three years ago. After a few sleepless nights, I came to the decision to let someone else have Ninotchka; I figured it was such a popular film that it would have no trouble finding a participating blogger to adopt it for this event. As it turns out, little Ninotchka was not among the chosen forty films that my fellow CMBA members decided to write about. I feel a bit guilty and personally responsible for that omission. Nevertheless, much has been said for Ninotchka, and when I imagined The Rules of the Game going completely unmentioned in this event focused on the greatest films of 1939 – well, that was just something I could not, would not abide. And so, once again on this blog titled Garbo Laughs, I show my determination to seemingly ignore Greta Garbo forever. What can I say? I like to be difficult unpredictable.
Renoir’s Rules of the Game was the right film that came at exactly the wrong time. What appears superficially to be a simple upstairs/downstairs comedy of manners is, in fact, Renoir’s richly-layered social commentary on the effect an excess of riches can have on an individual’s humanity. His characters dabble at will in love and lust, life and death, and regard anything approaching sincerity or earnestness to be deeply and profoundly déclassé. Premiering less than two months before the official outbreak of World War II, it seems upperclass Parisian audiences were not so keen on seeing themselves depicted as petty, capricious, and ultimately amoral in the face of what they knew would mean great hardship for their country. The backlash was so vocal that the film wound up being banned by the French government, and was yanked from movie screens almost as soon as it was released. This rejection deeply hurt Renoir, who had to wait until after the war was over for his little film critiquing the selfish whims of the noble rich to be given the recognition and accolades it so amply deserved.
Rules of the Game has almost too many characters to keep up with, who are all involved with each other in infinitely intricate ways. There’s the marquis, Robert, who has a mistress, Geneviève, as well as a wife, Christine, who had previously been involved with the aviator, André, whose best friend, Octave, has been sleeping with Christine’s maid, Lisette, who has a husband, Schumacher, but is meanwhile being pursued by the poacher, Marceau… You get the picture. The relationships build one on top of the other in a never-ending web of M.C. Escher-like complexity. But however deeply they’re connected, Renoir does flesh out his characters as individuals and build their allegorical roles within this undefined “game.”
In this game, it is Robert who is clearly the Most Valuable Player. He sets the rules and makes the plays. He can keep both a wife and a mistress, pledging his undying allegiance and making passionate promises to both of them within the same day. He is the master manipulator, a position echoed in his obsession with wind-up toys and machines. These gadgets always work like they should, are always available to entertain and obey him, can be turned on and off at will – with no effort on his part, save for the slight turn of a key. His wife Christine, an Austrian who has only been married to Robert for three years, is a player in training. She tries her best to perform, to be both an actor and an observer in her own life, but is not-so-deep-down an idealist, incapable of turning off her poetic yearnings for true romantic love. She finds her temptation in André, the polar opposite of Robert: effusive, passionate, manic-depressive, completely the slave of his moment’s emotions. When his head is leveled he wants to be the Hero, the knight in shining armor who can rescue the princess with the permission and full consent of her captor. And standing on the outside, there is Octave, who refuses to be either a player or a pawn by choosing to abstain from involvement in the game entirely. He is supported by his rich friends financially and therefore supports them tenfold emotionally, dabbling only in affairs of the heart and body with other non-players – namely, the help. However, this abstinence does come with a price for poor, loveless Octave, who is always there to provide a shoulder to cry on but can never have the favor repaid without giving himself away completely.
It is when the “lower” classes, the servants, begin to mimic the roles and actions of their upstairs counterparts that the game begins to unravel. Money and excess allow the dalliances of the aristocrats to remain purely in the realm of sport, ultimately having no effect on their standing or lot in life. For the help, things are slightly more desperate, and their attempt to start their own round of the game ends up having disastrous consequences for both groups. It is at this point that the coldness and inhumanity of Robert’s hardened soul is glaringly revealed, thereby evincing Renoir’s lesson that what we gain in wealth we often lose in soul.
The film’s constantly-changing relationships and complex connections are enhanced by Renoir’s revolutionary use of deep focus, where the actions of both foreground and background characters are given equal screen clarity and therefore equal importance. This allows one subplot to flit into the next swiftly and seamlessly, keeping the film in a state of perpetual motion. This also lends extra weight to the more static scenes, the most famous being the hunting sequence in which the rich “sportsmen” do nothing but stand behind a blind and fire off their weapons while dozens of staff members systematically make their way through the woods driving the helpless game out into the open. The nobility’s lack of reverence for life is foreshadowing for the dark events that are to occur at the very end of their party.
The Rules of the Game is almost too perfect in its planning and too sophisticated in its execution. The subtlety of the satire requires a lot of brain-power to successfully unravel; combine that with trying to keep all the characters and their relationships in order, and this film may very well give you a headache. However, Renoir’s masterful marriage of technique and content, the ease with which he transitions from chaos to silence, and the poetic blending of comedy and tragedy make this masterpiece well-deserving of its oft-awarded label as one of the finest films ever made. This is not an easy one; it requires a lot of effort to understand, even repeated viewings. But if you’re willing to put forth the work, this film more than gives back with beauty, wit, and sheer elegance of form.
The Rules of the Game (1939) – 4/5 stars