The Rules of the Game: a good if dated satire of French high society

Jean Renoir, “The Rules of the Game” (1939)

When you hear that a rich French marquis decides to have a huge party at his country estate and invites, among other people, a man who’s in love with the marquis’s wife and a woman who’s been having an affair with the marquis himself, and on top of that hires a rabbit poacher as a new servant who flirts with the wife of the gamekeeper who gets jealous every time another man even looks at her, you know that marquis is just asking for trouble. And trouble galore is what the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) gets in this movie “The Rules of the Game” by Jean Renoir which is a clever satire on the mores and values of the French upper classes on the eve of the Second World War when this film was made. For people reared on films sticking to their genre conventions, this might be a confusing movie: heavily driven by its dialogue and the comings and goings of its various characters, “The Rules …” goes from straightforward drama to comedy of manners to straight-out slapstick in the film’s first climax, and then to tragedy in its second climax, for the film’s purpose of detailing the various upper class social hypocrisies which make up the rules of the “game” and how well people conform or don’t conform  to them – and the price they pay if they don’t.

The movie gets off to a slow start, establishing its main personalities in its first hour: Robert’s wife Christine (Nora Gregor) is adored by hero aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) and in secret by his friend Octave (Renoir himself) while her husband dallies with Genevieve (Mila Parely) behind her back. Robert tries to ditch Genevieve but ends up inviting her to his chateau, La Coliniere, for the weekend. Octave encourages Robert to invite Andre as well. Other significant characters like Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), her husband and Robert’s gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) and Marceau (Julien Carette) are introduced early in the film. The camera moves around the sets like a roving eye, looking in at various people who go about their business as if unaware they are being watched. Audiences see significant actors and action in the background as well as in the foreground thanks to Renoir’s use of deep focus cinematography which at the time (1930’s) was unusual in filming.

Once all the invited guests including an army general arrive at La Coliniere for the weekend retreat, the pace picks up quickly and the action becomes live with little room for more character development: various entertainments that include shooting pheasants and hares for sport, walks, a masquerade party, some amateur theatre and games fill people’s time. As afternoon turns into evening and the masquerade gets under way, guests get drunk and exchange spouses and lovers casually, and tempers flare up. Upstairs, Robert and Andre fight over Christine and, in a comic turn that comments on how lower classes regard the upper classes as role models and leaders, Schumacher chases Marceau around the mansion for flirting with his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost). Both Schumacher and Marceau are sacked and thrown off the estate so they venture out to the estate greenhouse where they see Christine, wearing Lisette’s cape, and Octave planning to run away together. Schumacher, mistaking Christine for Lisette, swears to kill Octave. Octave returns to the house where Lisette talks him out of running away with Christine because of the age difference between them and he sends Andre to the greenhouse instead. Once there, Andre is mistaken for Octave by Schumacher who shoots him.

The way Robert deals with Andre’s shooting (or rather, dismisses it casually) and Christine’s own reaction to it symbolise the rot that pervades French society and its morality as a result of its corrupted leadership that they exemplify. Andre is hardly an attractive figure either: when viewers first see him, he behaves very petulantly when informed on arriving in Paris after a long solo flight that his former love Christine hasn’t arrived at the airport to greet him. So audiences discover early that Andre, perhaps a bright hope and talent for a new France, has been seduced by and into high society. Little does he realise that he’ll be treated like a toy and tossed aside by such people. Robert, Christine, Octave, Genevieve and Lisette, all vacillating between one extreme and another, all unsure who or what they most love and want to stay with, are people who want, or think they deserve, everything both ways, however incompatible these are. They treat love, marriage and human relationships in a cavalier way. Lisette is married but is ready to throw over Schumacher to stay with Christine and be close to luxury and wealth. Robert wants his marriage, his mistress, his property and collection of gadgets, not necessarily in that order, and not caring that the women in his life each want him to give up at least one of the four wants mentioned. Only Andre and Schumacher attach notions of loyalty and morality to love and marriage and they’re the ones who pay dearly for “transgressing” the rules of the “game”.

Renoir’s direction and matter-of-fact narrative which relies on the characters to drive the plot and action force viewers to decide for themselves if the characters are worthy of their sympathy. All these people have some attractive and unattractive qualities. The camera never settles on one particular person who might serve as the “hero” of the film; it moves through the labyrinthine mansion with its corridors, staircases and rooms leading into more rooms to focus on the characters, all players in the “game”. Viewers who have no PC or video-gaming experience might be distracted trying to watch actions in the foreground when there is activity in the background or nearly off-screen demanding attention. The easy camera flow moves through establishing the characters in the film’s first half without inducing boredom while the plot is yet to get off the ground; once the plot’s course is set, the camera then takes in nearly everything that happens at La Coliniere so the place becomes a synecdoche for French society.

Aside from the use of deep focus cameras, “The Rules …” looks dated with a style of acting that varies between natural and theatrical, and a plot heavy with symbolism. With computer games so prevalent now, any experimental edge the film might have had once in positing the mansion as a proto-type “computer game” with its different levels, and the hosts and guests as “players” symbolic of their class, is lost. Particular scenes, such as the hunting scenes, filmed documentary-style, in which peasants flush out prey for the shooters and scenes in which characters express prejudice against Jewish people, refer to issues of historic significance for which modern audiences may need to know some early and mid-20th century French and European history to understand fully. People living in societies where social class is still important in determining a person’s place and how far he or she can advance socially and economically will respond more positively to what the film says about social hypocrisy and in that respect the film still has value as social criticism.

Since “The Rules …” was made, other more recent films based on its plot, ideas or themes such as Alan Bridges’s “The Shooting Party” and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” have been made so it’s no longer even the definitive film of its type – a country estate as microcosm of its society – to see. Still, if you like mysteries, dramas or comedies set in rich country houses that focus on both the wealthy and their servants, “The Rules …” is a well-made movie with characters that are at once vivid, comic and serious.

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