The Rules of the Game (1939) – Jean Renoir

How can a film that is so often so light and joyous be so ultimately devastating? The Rules of the Game is a movie of such grief and needless woe yet is also an exorcise in clockwork logic and to-the-second comic timing. If there is a consensus among film people which is the greatest of all movies, that movie would be Citizen Kane (1941) and if there is a consensus on which is the second greatest, that movie is probably The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir’s 1939 class farce and tragicomic masterpiece. The movie begins with a quote from The Marriage of Figaro and it’s clear that Renoir was very inspired by Beamarchais, but while The Rules of the Game shares that play’s madcap energy and biting commentary, it forgoes Figaro’s compassionate ending for a far more bitter one.

Renoir’s 1937 Grand Illusion is more accessible and easy to grasp but The Rules of the Game is more elusive, its stays with the viewer a bit longer. I’m always amazed by the freshness of The Rules of the Game. Truffaut said the film feels like it’s being made right in front us. “For an instant,” he wrote in The Films of My Life, “we think to ourselves, I’ll come back tomorrow and see if it all turns out the same way.” The production was incredibly improvisational and one of the many miracles of the film is that all of the on the spot choices are perfect. The story is about a hunting party at an aristocratic mansion in the fall. The master and mistress of the house are Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio) and his wife Christine (Nora Gregor). There is Madame’s maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost) and her fiery husband Schumacher, the gamekeeper (Gaston Modot) and Robert’s butler Corneille (Eddy Debray), who gets the best line in the movie. Invited to the party are Robert’s mistress Geneviève (Mila Parély), the lecherous Monsieur St. Aubin (Pierre Nay), Christine’s dear friend Octave (Renoir), his friend, the famous aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) and a menagerie of retired colonels and fat ladies in pearls.  Somewhat less invited but still present is Marceau (Julien Carette), the poacher turned footman.

Renoir has never had any problem juggling large casts of complicated relationships and he effortlessly introduces all the characters and what each means to each other. See, André is in love with Christine (he isn’t alone there), and has made such a public display of it Octave has to appeal to the reasonable Robert to get André invited to the party. It’s clear that Christine feels at least something for André and that Robert, unfaithful with Geneviève, wants to end his relationship with his mistress and be true to his wife. Below stairs Lisette is frankly bored with the earnest but dim Schumacher and is not resistant to Marceau’s immediate and poorly concealed advances, advances that Schumacher can’t help but discover, throwing him into a rage. All the interpersonal developments come to a head one evening after a bizarre revue show in which Octave, dressed as a bear, finds himself wandering around the mansion begging the guests to help him out of costume while André fights with St. Aubin who has caught Christine at a vulnerable moment (she has discovered Robert and Geneviève) and while Schumacher chases Marceau with a gun, which the guests believe is part of the show. That’s when Robert demands something of Corneille, setting up his immortal line with “Corneille, put an end to this farce!” “Which one, your lordship?,” Corneille replies. This sequence, along with an earlier one of the guests arriving has the physical grace and humor of Tati, which it predates by twenty years. They are expertly choreographed and paced and they feel flawless without being too perfect, meaning they seem genuine and unfolding before us, not over rehearsed. They are also in deep focus, two years before Kane and a year before The Grapes of Wrath (1940), both shot by Gregg Toland, often credited with pioneering the technique.

One of the things about The Rules of the Game that I’ve always admired is its full formation of the mansion in the mind of the viewer. This is very important if you’re going to have chases from one end to the other. I’m certainly no expert on the movie but I feel like I can navigate the great house in my mind when other movie spaces I’ve spent much more time in remain undefined. We see where the servants’ quarters are and where they connect to the foyer, which is flanked on either side by great halls. I can see the staircase that leads to a row of guests’ rooms, almost like a hotel. I know where the greenhouse is, beyond the footbridge and I have a sense of how far away it is from the great stairs that lead up to the house. Why is this important? Because it gives us a concrete place in which to exist with the characters, it allows us to follow the action and discern what’s happening, where, and to what relation to the other people in the movie. This sense of space is even more impressive when one considers that the interior of the chateau was shot in a studio and the greenhouse was a set.

Robert’s pet passion is for intricate music machines; from wind-up toys all the way to giant calliopes like the one he reveals during the party. Such devices would require the perfection this movie has but the world and the players in it sadly lack. Perhaps Robert knows this and that’s why he is both proud and a little embarrassed by his immaculate but silly trinkets.

While the fighting and chasing goes on, Octave sneaks away with Christine and tenderly they reveal their love for each other. By this time Schumacher and Marceau have joined forces of sorts as Lisette has chosen her mistress Christine over both of them. They think they’ve stumbled upon Octave with Lisette because Christine is wearing her maid’s cape (everything in The Rules of the Game is perfectly set-up, earlier Schumacher gives Lisette the cape which he tells her is warm and waterproof but she rejects as being ugly in what we think is a throwaway line reinforcing the distance between the two of them, but it becomes poignant when Lisette gives the cape to Christine for the same reason). Schumacher is still seeing red and is heartbroken and vows to kill Octave who he believes is with his wife. Meanwhile, Octave and Christine make plans to run away immediately. He hustles back inside to collect his things when André intercepts him. Octave heartbreakingly decides to let André have Christine because he feels he isn’t good enough for her and he tells André where she is and gives him his coat. On his way to Christine, Schumacher, thinking he’s found Octave, shoots and kills him. Game over. There aren’t really any rules, except that as soon as you take such unimportant things like love seriously, the more likely you get hurt. Everyone acts so selfishly and carelessly with each other, it’s only the ones who try to play by the rules that have to pay.

Perhaps Robert was better off philandering with Geneviève instead of miserably losing Christine. Perhaps André should have simply taken Christine instead of insisting on confronting Robert in a gentlemanly fashion. Perhaps Octave should have done the same thing, instead he thought of his friend and his love ahead of himself and his friend died and he permanently damaged his chances with his love because of it. In the end, as if awoken from a Bunuelian dream, Robert restores aristocratic order and they all return to the mansion as if nothing had ever happened. Off to play the game again tomorrow.

It’s a remarkable movie and one that was absolutely hated upon its initial release. Renoir relates a story about a man at the premiere who lit his newpaper on fire with the obvious intention of burning down the theater. The idea of these shallow, vain, and brash aristocrats and their conniving, violent lower class counterparts was so explosive that viewers and critics found the movie to be absolute rubbish. What they missed is that beyond the cynicism is a deep understanding. No one in The Rules of the Game acts unexpectedly, irrationally perhaps, but always justifiably. “The awful thing about life is: Everybody has their reasons,” says Octave and here we get to see them all. Yes, they may be base and immediate, ignoble and short-sided but they’re personal and true.

There is a scene in the servants quarters when the servants are eating and they discuss working for Robert, who is Jewish. Many of the servants display a casual anti-Semitism, wondering if a Jew can be a true aristocrat. Suddenly the cook enters the conversation and says that he doesn’t know if Robert is high society or not but that Robert knows the proper way of adding vinegar to potato salad and that that’s good enough for him. Like many scenes in The Rules of the Game the moment is both simple and profound. Surely, defending someone on the basis of their knowledge of potato salad is as arbitrary as disliking someone because they are Jewish but Renoir is making a point that the things that you capriciously are (upper class, servant, Jewish) matter less than the things that you know or do. Many movies want to be about a million things, The Rules of the Game wants to be about one thing only, but it’s the most complicated of things; human nature. That it so accurately depicts it is nothing shy of a miracle.

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