La règle du jeu (1939)

RULES OF THE GAME (Règle du jeu, La)

(director/writer: Jean Renoir; screenwriters: Carl Koch/based on the book “Les Caprices de Marianne” by Alfred de Musset; cinematographers: Jean-Paul Alphen/Jean Bachelet/Jacques Lemare/Alan Renoir; editors: Marguerite Renoir/Marthe Huguet; music: Roger Désormières; cast: Marcel Dalio (Robert de la Chesnaye), Nora Gregor (Christine de la Chesnaye), Roland Toutain (Andre Jurieu), Jean Renoir (Octave), Mila Parely (Genevieve de Marrast), Paulette Dubost (Lisette), Gaston Modot (Schumacher), Julien Carette (Marceau), Pierre Magnier (General), Pierre Nay (Saint-Aubin), Anne Mayen (Jackie), Eddy Debray (Corneille), Henri Cartier-Bresson (The English Domestic); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Claude Renoir; Janus Films/Criterion Collection; 1939-France-in French with English subtitles)

Perhaps the greatest film ever made.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Perhaps the greatest film ever made had a disastrous Paris opening in 1939, as it was greeted by a hostile audience and became a box-office failure. The Rules of the Game was taken out of circulation, re-cut and trimmed off at least 30 minutes from its 106 minutes, and it eventually was banned by the German occupying forces for its “demoralizing” effects. It was made available again in its original form and length in 1959 under the supervision of Jean Renoir after the original negative was destroyed during WW11, and was not shown again in its complete form until 1965 when it became reevaluated by critics and was almost universally praised as a masterpiece (it was voted the second greatest film of all time, with Citizen Kane first, in an international critics poll held during 1992). The version my review is based on is the Criterion Collection’s new DVD release, in which they did a superb job restoring the video especially for its subtitle’s clarity and greatly improved the overall print quality.

The brilliant social comedy delights in its playful phrase “everyone has their reasons,” which might begin to explain how the film is settled in such a way that clearly shows that the rich and poor play by a different set of rules when it comes to matters of the heart. It offers a scathing critique of corrupt French society, where if you don’t play by class-based rules bad things can be expected, and points to France as a nation mired in deep class differences. There are many other distasteful things to observe of the upper-crusts including their casual anti-Semitism, their empty lives and their lack of understanding art as anything more than another possession.

“The rules of the game,” said Jean Renoir, “are those which must be observed in society if one wishes to avoid being crushed.” Renoir called his elegant and pessimistic film “an exact description of the bourgeoisie of our time.” It was filmed in 1939 after the surrender of Czechoslovakia to Hitler at Munich had “saved the peace.” Soon it seemed evident that this move would not bring peace and a doom spread over Europe. Renoir (“Grand Illusion”/”The Human Beast”), anticipating war and deeply upset by current events, thought he might best interpret that delicate state of mind by creating a story in the spirit of the French comic theater, a tradition in which the force that sets every character in motion is love and the characters are not distracted by their occupations in this pursuit. The result was The Rules of the Game as a comedy of manners that turns to tragedy, something that was both absurd and profound. It is directed and written by Jean Renoir, son of the Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. Also working on the screenplay was writer Carl Koch, as he adapted it as an updated version from Alfred de Musset’s “Les Caprices de Marianne.”

The film centers around a weekend hunt for the haute bourgeoisie at the lush country-estate, La Colinere, of wealthy Parisian aristocrat Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) and his Austrian wife of three years Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Gregor, the real-life Princess Stahremberg, someone opposed to Hitler). Invited to the hunt on the special request of Octave (Jean Renoir) is aviator André Jurieu (Roland Toutain), who just returned to a hero’s reception after crossing the Atlantic on a solo flight on the eve of WW11 and instead of being overjoyed at his warm reception felt terrible that Christine, whom he has fallen in love with and dedicated the flight to, does not greet him there. Octave is a sort of playful court jester and loyal friend to the society couple while a best friend of Andre’s. Also attending the hunt among the many society guests is Robert’s married mistress Genevieve de Marrast (Parely), whom Robert wants to dump since he realizes he loves his wife and doesn’t want to lose her to the aviator. The servant class know all about the affairs of the society people and in their crude way imitate their betters with their own version of sexual musical chairs while mocking them in secret with jeers.

Warning: spoilers to follow in the next two paragraphs.

By the time the rabbit and pheasant hunts take place, which are depicted as nothing short of acts of barbarism, the film has slid from soap opera melodrama to a bitter farce and from a sense of reality into a dreamworld, as it intriguingly moves to the finale at a costume party where comedy gives way to tragedy and where everyone’s flawed human nature is viewed with an unblinking nonjudgmental eye. In what appears like a scene out of the Keystone Kops a poacher (Carette), hired by the marquis to be upgraded as a domestic, is being chased through the house with a gun fired at random by the jealous game warden (Modot), whose domestic wife Lisette (Dubost) has flirted with the sneaky poacher. The Germanic game warden is enraged that his wife is not true to him, and later plans to shoot Octave whom he thinks is kissing his wife in the greenhouse — but it’s Christine wearing Lisette’s cape. The faithful wife Christine, who would not have an affair if it were not for her hubby’s dalliance, is there with Octave only because she is disappointed that the honest aviator failed to sweep her off her feet as expected when she commits to him, instead asks her to live for a month with his mother as a tribute to virtue and the common-man’s bourgeois idea of morality. But she is still furious after discovering her hubby lied about not having a mistress and in desperation falls into the arms of her secret admirer Octave.

The fantasy world of the guests abruptly changes to a frightened mood of reality as the innocent Andre is shot by the game warden. He thought he shot Octave because Andre was wearing his coat while rushing to the greenhouse to see Christine–whom the game warden still believes is his Lisette. Andre is sacrificed because he broke the rules of a society founded upon a superficial display of manners that does not frown on infidelity only on the inability not to lie about it and keep it covered up from the public. While the lowerclasses resort to violence instead of lies to settle their affairs, and when they cheat the consequences are therefore greater. The aviator was a real hero who tried to live by his true emotions without lying, and as a result he pays the price for not living by the rules of the game of the upper-class society he is from. The marquis handles this tragedy in a way that reflects his good breeding, as he apologizes for the “accident” while the general (Magnier) looks upon him with deep admiration and remarks that “he has class—and, believe me, the race is dying out.” In that statement alone, Renoir couldn’t have said more about the disdain he had for such a frivolous society and their superficiality.

The performances by the ensemble cast were outstanding, as professional actors mingled with a cast largely made up of nonprofessionals. But, in particular, Dalio, Carette and Renoir give inspired performances, as I couldn’t keep my eyes off them when they were on the screen. Also, the camerawork was dazzling while capturing in black and white the beauty of life on an estate for the privileged and picking up on the moody aspirations of the underprivileged kept divided from their betters by invisible boundaries, as a very active camera got around the nooks and crannies of the huge chateau to catch them in unguarded poses.