The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)


As with Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is a film whose final, cumulative impact is perhaps more meaningful than the immediate experience of watching it. Intellectually and technically, it’s all but faultless as a social satire and phony “comedy of manners.” What we see on the screen is not what is really happening; however much the audience feels they are being drawn into a character piece, it becomes clear afterward that what we have here is a dark and unforgiving portrait of the barely-existent line between order and chaos. The aristocrats whose world the film occupies have inflated their busy lifestyle to protect themselves from realities, hence all of their social mores and manners, hence the “rules” in the title.

In an even more immediate way, Rules of the Game is about the impossibly wretched ways that people allow themselves to become slaves to futile matters of the heart. A later movie which this resembles and undoubtedly influenced, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, was about the glory, comfort, and overriding truth of love. Riles is about the dark side of love, the people who allow it to overcome and destroy them by putting desire, whim and jealousy above all reason and compassion. Thus, in many ways, it makes two opposite points — of small internal bureaucracies becoming a dehumanizing force, and of dreamy anarchy destroying vision and life. That’s an utter lack of convenient simplicity that rings true, and I can’t see how people claim this movie could only speak to French people who remember the years before the Occupation.

We have parallel stories of cheating hearts, faith, friendship, and jealousy, one existing in the quarters of a rich woman and the bourgeois cult surrounding her, the other taking place among their servants in the kitchen, watching the grounds, etc. The kind of class commentary that exists in so many of the totems of European cinema is here in spades, taking a tone of quiet but incisive satire that mocks both sides. The story seems bright and innocuous but is so pessimistic about what-will-come-of-it-all that it can’t really escape the impending doom of the setting in which it was made, 1938 France. You couldn’t create Bergman’s film in that environment because it’s a dream that wouldn’t ring true. Love is not life, here; love, and nearly everything else, is death. People will always compromise themselves to fit some logic they build for their friendships and sexual relations to one extent or another, but the possibility of some kind of freedom is continually eroded in this movie (and, frequently, even today) by ideas of what is or is not “correct.” Age, ideology, profession, class, even just being at the wrong place at the wrong time is reason enough to suppress true feeling and the possibility of happiness.

The movie sets up its ultimate conflict brilliantly, though in a somewhat roundabout fashion, by introducing in its opening scene a person who is determined to break against “the rules.” André (Roland Toutain) has just flown across the Atlantic and he is a national hero, but all he has to offer when asked to say a few words is a tearful confession that he pulled the stunt to impress a woman (Christine, played by Nora Gregor) who broke his heart, who did not show up to the big homecoming. He ends up being integrated into that woman’s inner circle for a weeklong hunting party, and he also ends up dead. What makes the character’s plight so interesting is that he, despite being the “romantic hero” and the “rebel” who goes against the grain of the unfeeling drones surrounding him, he doesn’t know what’s really going on any more than they do, and he is just as lost and victimized by a childish belief — shared at some point by, I would argue, everyone who has ever breathed — that somehow it is the world and not himself that must conform. No one in this movie wants to accept the inevitability of their own fate. That had its own meaning for Renoir — the shadow of the war is everywhere — but it survives beyond its time.

So there is gravely immoral behavior, betrayal, intrusion, destruction, murder, and death, all in the name of love, just as people are shoved aside and compromised in the name of What Is Correct. Both goals are played here as a barrier to living, however inevitable they may often be, neither as earth-shatteringly important as these characters who’ve wrapped themselves up in them are prepared to admit. And to be fair, “love” may be the wrong word, though any two people will seldom agree on what it even is, but I know this: Smiles captured it, and the vague lusting and pining here is nothing akin, and probably not worth dying for.

Visual perfection — with astounding editing and photography anticipating the New Wave, A Hard Day’s Night, and of course, Citizen Kane, many sections of excellent dialogue, and other great ornamentation serves, unusually enough, at least in part to hide the movie’s true essence, but there’s no doubting it by the end. After a death is announced, the reaction of a few guests is to debate the “style” of the occasion, a spooky finale somewhat uncomfortably mirrored by our world today. Basically, The Rules of the Game is, in truth, a disturbing movie, all the more so when its times of mounting real-world dread and idle, frivolous distraction are so uncomfortably similar to ours. It’s just pretending not to be one. All we are as it closes is bitter, sad, and resentful.

Two key scenes illustrate the stylistic contrast here. The first is an excruciating five minutes capturing in maddening detail a hunt of rabbits and birds by the bourgeois gathered at the estate. Over fifty quick cuts and a dozen or so graphic animal deaths captured, one shot in particular lingering hideously on a rabbit’s final twitch before death. The scene cuts through the rest of the movie brutally, and it is really the one stark point prior to the ending in which Renoir’s concept of “dancing on the volcano” is revealed without window dressing. It’s powerful and horrifying, and holds a mirror up (through the editing more than the action it captures) to the occupants of the house as they fade into their distractions, on the very outer edge of utter devastation. They are neither dead nor alive but dangerously, unknowingly close to the edge.

The second scene immediately precedes the string of misunderstandings that leads to the final tragedy of the story. It is a ceaselessly violent and funny chase through the house; the man in charge of security on the grounds, Schumacher (Gaston Motdot) is chasing the man (Julien Carette as poacher-cum-servant Marceau) who is wooing his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost), and he has a gun, and he shoots it, a lot, and the movie is first-rate screwball for ten minutes or so. It comes from nowhere as much as the hunt scene, and its effect also displays how subtle the rest of the film is; the occupants of the house are so disturbed by a show of real emotional rawness that they have no idea how to respond to it, leading to the deeply troubling closing scene that has a killing treated like a mild quirk in an otherwise dull evening. All these gray areas, complexities, tragedy buried in humor, horror buried in romance, sex as power, the makings of an exciting and vital movie. And in terms of the visual prowess and the matching of ideas with images, Rules of the Game almost feels like a French Citizen Kane. Almost.

But if this is the definitive knowing comedy of bed-hopping and jilted romance, it must be stated that the sardonic social commentary gets in the way a bit. And if it is the definitive pessimistic satire, it must be stated that Renoir’s humanism, his correct insistence that “everyone has their reasons,” gets in the way a bit. Somehow the fusion, while powerful, just isn’t seamless. While it is certainly a key point of the movie that the characters, rich and poor, operate with emotions buried in the name of decorum, it makes it difficult to connect with the movie on a visceral basis. When they move from A to B, it’s hard to find a way to really understand them. Of course, this being social commentary, it may have been felt unnecessary, but you can have great satire and great storytelling with fully developed characters simultaneously. (Hal Ashby’s Being There would be a popular example that springs to mind.) Here, the point-scoring in retrospect seems to have overwhelmed the film’s potential warmth and humanity, which I think actually works slightly against the film’s sentiment — if I may briefly reveal my roots, it’s as if the masterful 1980-vintage comic examinations of modern life Melvin and Howard (a warm embrace of people in all their foibles) and Used Cars (an unforgiving attack on the entire culture’s shallowness) tried to be in the same movie.

Though it’s probably not a fair criticism, the movie frankly does not live up to the grand excitement and innovation of its first scene — André Jureieux dismounting his plane, and immediately weeping over the air about his broken heart, cross-cut with the woman he’s pining for listening on her radio, rolling her eyes and nonchalantly smoking — which recalls such fireball openings of fully-convicted naturalistic surrealism as Kane and especially Bringing Up Baby, immediately bringing the otherworldly tone of the story to the forefront. In part, this is due to the fact that the scene surrounds the activities of a man who, though he sets the story in motion and ultimately is the one who does not make it out alive, we never get to know enough. He’s the movie’s central device, and yet we see, hear, and feel so little of him that by the end of the story we care about his death only in a protracted sense, only just enough to feel the chill of the closing scenes.

Looking over online comments, I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that André in his naivete and entitlement is supposed to represent the noble break away from society; this would suggest that the film is as idealistic and naive as that character, and that’s a notion that disturbs me a bit too much to consider. It would have been dandy for the movie to explore this avenue more, and the opening sets it up beautifully by concentrating on one form of irrational behavior as a replacement for real communication and feeling. So oh no, the beloved and distant Christine didn’t show up. But ultimately, did she ask him to fly across the ocean for her? While the movie examines this point (the silly notion of winning or losing the “game,” basically) at some length, it never approaches it as well or as dead-on as it does in the first five cartoonish minutes, with the performances perfectly complementing the over-the-top nature of the whole idea in wicked Wellesian fashion. The whole film is smart, but sadly not as smart as the beginning sets it up to be.

Renoir said “During the shooting of the film I was torn between my desire to make a comedy of it and the wish to tell a tragic story. The result of this ambivalence was the film as it is.” For the most part, the hybrid is misshappen but functional and fascinating, but when we see it, we sit back and react and watch all from a distance, and I swear it would be possible to make all these points with characters instead of archetypes, with actions (and death) that mean something because they claim people and not because of what those people represent, and then this would be a story and not an essay. It’s a fabulous essay, but you know, sometimes, restraint isn’t the best tactic, as biting and effective as The Rules of the Game nevertheless remains.

[Edited and reformatted version of a review written and posted in 2005.]

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