Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939) is one of the most highly regarded films of all time, an entertaining, complex and meaningful tragi-comedy packed with activity and thought-provoking material.
At a country house on the weekend of a hunt and party, the messy web of affairs among the guests and servants degenerates to the point that they begin hunting each other, and it ends in murder. The main players are a pilot (Roland Toutain) who, after completing a daring transatlantic flight, publicly professes his love for a married woman (Nora Gregor) who doesn’t really love him. Her husband the Marquis (Marcel Dalio) invites the pilot, as well as his own lover (Mila Parély) to the party, and others who figure prominently include a decent and clownish friend (Jean Renoir), and the groundskeeper (Gaston Modot) whose wife the maid (Paulette Dubost) fools around with a nasty poacher (Julien Carette).
Dalio is wonderful playing this aristocrat with “class” as we’re repeatedly told, a silly but likable character who is too much of an intellectual to believe in barriers and walls, and so he unwisely invites his wife’s admirer, and hires the poacher. Dalio’s acceptance of these combustibles, despite warnings, despite their own clearly stated intentions and actions revealing their true nature, is part of what leads to murder. Just as responsible is Renoir, the man wearing the mask of comedy to cover his feelings of failure. He inadvertently helps set up the tragedy by first getting his pilot friend invited to the party, then sending him out to the greenhouse at the end.
In the absurd and farcical fun, there are serious statements and parallels to the dawning realization of those times, that living at extremes led to emptiness, that appeasement and concessions to evil were foolish mistakes that would soon result in chaos. On the eve of war, the way these characters make light of or dismiss the gravity of their own situations becomes a dialogue on denial, unwillingness to face reality, and the dangers of rejecting fixed truths and absolutes. Renoir’s line “everyone has their reasons” is true and harmless in small doses, but it also allows for moral relativism that seeks to understand evil reasons instead of fighting them. Similarly “I want to disappear down a hole so I don’t need to figure out what’s right and wrong” is not a strategy that makes for an orderly life and world. So many lines are notes on a scale of futility and surrender: “it’s part of the times,” “everybody lies,” “now is not the time.” Noises from a neighbouring property, like the troubles encroaching from neighbouring nations, are questioned but shrugged off, and guests take the groundskeeper’s pursuit of the poacher, during which he shoots up the house, as a “slight dispute.” Faced with real danger they fail to recognize it or act: “if I had known, I would have stopped him.” Famous last words for a continent soon to be at war. When the butler is asked to put an end to this farce, he understandably asks, “which one?”
Some of the characters who deny reality obsess instead over the mechanics of rules, process and etiquette, and try to impose order in unnatural ways. Dalio escapes into his clockworks, calliope, music boxes and player piano because they’re predictable, consistent and run smoothly. Several of the characters play at flirting and chasing with no actual result, it’s just mindless distraction and carrying out rituals without meaning. Love is but a whim plus some skin, says Parély, an act without soul or value. Similarly the mistaken identity and murder at the end makes the actual person meaningless and disposable. Just as Gregor easily transfers her affections, just like the playacting of the skits, they all just go through the motions.
At the other extreme is impulsive, destructive passion and selfish pursuit of self-gratification with no respect for the boundaries of others. The celebrity flier Toutain is a new type of hero who can’t act like one when it matters, as Renoir says. Toutain chooses to use his new fame and forum to gossip and tactlessly reveal his crush on Gregor, without regard for her situation or feelings (as it turns out she doesn’t love him the same way). He even tries to commit suicide by crashing his car with his buddy Renoir in it! He’s embarrassingly immature, acting out a possessiveness and demanding explanations he has no right to. No wonder Gregor thinks his type of sincerity is a bore; it goes against her rules of good taste and propriety. The servants express this too, saying: “I’m all for doing what one pleases, but etiquette is etiquette.” You can’t deny reality or pretend that anything goes, nor can these two approaches coexist, as the comical and depressing breakdown of this party goes to show. And when it ends in tragedy, the solution is to sweep it under the rug and avoid disturbing anyone’s amusement. The game goes on and nobody learns anything.
There’s so much more in this movie than I can touch on in one post or viewing. There’s more than Renoir’s leftist criticism of the upper class, since he spares no one. The upstairs folk are as likable and kind as they are ridiculous, while the downstairs help are just as frivolous and fickle, preoccupied with shallow aspirations, and prone to bigotry, envy and jealousy. Renoir has the actions and surroundings of the two levels mirror each other closely and intermingle as they pursue many of the same desires within their respective means and systems.
Rules also draws you into all this drama with imaginative staging, and shots by Jean Bachelet use deep focus to capture the activities and movements of many characters at a given moment. The camera moves from room to room of this huge mansion in a fluid way, it looks up and down the long hallway to show us the excitement on the eve of the hunt, involving the viewer as if they were another guest. My favourite example is the camera’s turn away from the danse macabre to take a long look around the room, where it captures the engrossed audience, and the couples sneaking around with each other and disappearing into far-off rooms.
Through this crazy gathering, Renoir intended to show how France at the time was “dancing on a volcano.” The film caused controversy then and earns praise still, as something so bleak but so enjoyable, something as delightfully designed as Dalio’s giant calliope.
I was so close to putting Rules of the Game on my 10 Classics to watch in 2015 list, so I was happy to join Liz at Now Voyaging in doing a joint view/review as part of her 10; you can Read her review here.