CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Rules of the Game (1939)

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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?

This is an official entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Movies of 1939 Blogathon, co-hosted by Becky of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food and Page of My Love Of Old Hollywood. Please click the banner to see a list of contributions by CMBA members on the wild and wonderful fims of 1939 – a year many call the greatest in movie history.

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 directs himself in this movie, and may I say? He’s a super cutiepie.

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.”

Robert debuts his new calliope for a roomful of people who have nothing better to do with their weekend than come see a calliope.

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.

It’s the servants who provide most of the comedy – as well as the tragedy.

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

16 Comments

  1. Rick29

     /  May 17, 2011

    Fine review of one of the greatest films ever made. It’s ironic that the two most pathetic characters–Andre and Geneviève–are the ones who follow the rules at the risk of their own unhappiness. Andre may come across as a lovestruck fool, but he truly loves Christine and knows what he wants. Likewise, Geneviève understands that she doesn’t want to lose Robert, although she confesses that “I don’t know if it’s love or force of habit.” In contrast, Christine, Octave, and Robert struggle with trying to figure out what they really want. In the end, their actions seem foolish and perhaps even tragic, but as Octave explains to Robert at one point: “Everyone has their reasons.”

    • Yes, André and Geneviève are probably the most pathetic characters because they just can’t measure up to the “rules” and end up completely miserable (and one of them even worse than that) because of it. Thank you for bringing up Geneviève; I couldn’t find space to include an analysis of her character in my review.

  2. You tackled Rules of the Game? You brave, brave woman. But I think you made the right choice; this was a beautiful review and you did the film justice. I am newly impressed by your talents.

    • Why thank you, Rachel! :) I just couldn’t let this film go unmentioned.

  3. Caroline, RULES OF THE GAME has always been one of those films I’d always heard about, but never had an opportunity to see. Your sensitive, beautifully-written blog post about this sophisticated satire piqued my interest, and I look forward to catching up with the film in the not-too-distant future. Well done indeed!

    • That means so much to me, Dorian, thank you. :) It’s truly a gorgeous and captivating film and I hope I did it some justice.

  4. I have yet to see this film, but I must make time for it (and soon) after reading this review. Beautifully crafted, as always, Caroline!

    And as for Garbo … well, she DID “vant to be alone,” so maybe by “ignoring” her, you’re actually adhering to her wishes? ;)

    • Thanks very much, Brandie. I’ll get to Garbo eventually, I’m sure. I just want to keep people on their toes! “Is THIS the day she talks about Garbo? I’ll have to go check her blog!” A way of getting traffic, you see. ;)

  5. Oh, thank you for this terrific post on one of the greatest movies ever made – your analysis of Renoir’s use of deep focus is spot-on, as well as your interpretation of Robert’s love of mechanical toys (and what a great performance by Marcel Dalio in the part – film buffs who only know him from Casablanca really should see him in this film to learn what a superb actor he was). I often think that if Mozart had lived in the 20th century and had been a filmmaker, this is the movie he would have made – its tangled plots, frivolous-seeming characters on the edge of heartbreak, and its compassionate yet detached look at the shallow yet brutal interactions between social classes reminds me of operas like The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni. Forget Citizen Kane – I’ll take Rules of the Game any day!

    • It’s truly a masterpiece, and blows so many American films out of the water with its sheer sophistication and seamless interweaving of story and satire. Thanks for your comment — I’m glad you enjoyed my review! :)

  6. TheLadyEve and Whistling Gypsy have awakened in me a real interest in foreign cinema that I had not had before. Now you interest me even more. Most of the comments on this movie call it the greatest film ever made! I have got to see this!

    I felt like you did — I thought of doing a couple of famous ones I love. But I decided to do one that is an important piece of film history, although not well known now, but I love it. You’ve presented a really good synopsis of the film and assessment of its qualities. Thanks for sharing your good work with the blogathon!

    • You’re welcome, Becky! Thanks for hosting such a marvelous event! TODAY is the day I will catch up on everyone’s posts. I hope all went swimmingly!

  7. A wonderfully articulate post on a movie that took a lot of courage to tackle. As you write, there’s almost too much in the film to deal with, including in a concise format like a blog post, but you did a great job of covering the salient points. I thought your coverage of the thematic elements of the film, always the most difficult to deal with, was admirably succinct and direct. A highlight of the movie for me is the “play within a play.” Renoir always had such a fascination with theater and performance. It’s such a rich and dense film that it really does demand repeated viewings. Many other films have used a similar situation, but of those I’ve seen, only Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” approaches the brilliance of Renoir’s version.

    The Criterion edition I watched not long ago had two alternate endings, the original and an abbreviated and refocused one that Renoir prepared to shorten the film. I wonder if you’ve seen these and if you have a preference. I believe I preferred the revised ending because it implied that the relationship between Octave and Christine was not a romantic one, that although Octave had a crush on Christine (they had been friends for a long time), she thought of him more as a brother than a lover. The original ending left no doubt that they were, or were about to become, sexually involved.. The simpler and more chaste ending with Octave as brotherly matchmaker worked better for me.

    As for “Ninotchka,” I have a post on this film I wrote awhile back up as my Featured Retrospective Post at The Movie Projector: http://www.themovieprojector.blogspot.com

    • I have only seen the ending in which Octave confesses his love to Christine in the greenhouse, which to me just adds another layer of complexity to the story. Also the first time I saw the film I know that scene made my little heart go pitter-patter because it was so unexpected and romantic, and I loved Octave’s character so much. To me it just makes Octave’s character more well-rounded and adds a bit of tragedy to his role as a player in the game and shows that, as the kindest and most caring character in the film, he is being deprived of what he really wants too. But at the same time does the film really need an extra layer of complexity after all that goes on? I will have to rent the Criterion disc and see the alternate ending, and make up my mind from there.

  8. I’m so glad someone reviewed a foreign film for this blogathon! I saw Rulesof the Game in a film class as an undergrad and it’s one I’d like to revisit.

    • Thanks, Kendra! Although 1939 was a hallmark year for American movies it’s interesting to see what the Europeans were up to at the same time. It’s definitely worth a revisit; it made such a big impression on me the first time I saw it and I just keep discovering new layers to it the more times I see it.

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