No history of cinema is complete without ‘The Rules of the Game’. This is arguably the greatest film ever made.
Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (‘La Règle du Jeu’, in French) is about upper-class French society just before the start of World War II. This film seems to be conventional in the first appearance, and nonetheless it stands in a class of its own. I don’t think any other film would achieve as high a percentage of all-time top-five ratings as Renoir’s classic and convincingly just what makes it such an outstanding work.
This film when released in 1939 was banned by the Vichy government in France for being de-moralizing. This film’s original negative print was destroyed during Allied bombing raid forcing post-War cinephiles to assemble their own version of the film with advice from Renoir. Historians managed to piece together a 106-minute version, longer than Renoir’s original cut but not containing all the same scenes, that restored the film to its current reputation are as close to top five films ever made and ranked after Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
The story of this movie is about a weekend gathering of wealthy French socialites at a country estate. The focus is on numerous romantic flirtations and infidelities, involving servants and elite, as such with its reference to Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro, it has all the peripheral symbols of a light comedy of manners. Thou’ Renoir managed to mold this seemingly conservative material into a multi-layered and reflective annotation on the nature of love, society, and the human condition. In the background, of course, was the generally shared feeling of impending catastrophe and social breakdown that would accompany another devastating world war (This was released month before WWII). Perhaps it was not surprising in this connection that the director caution and throws the gloomy light that the film cast on French society.
The film starts with the aviator André Jurieux landing at Le Bourget Airfield just outside Paris. He is greeted by his friend Octave, who reveals that Christine, the woman Andre loves, has not come to the airfield to greet him. André looks heartbroken. When a radio reporter comes to broadcast his first words upon landing, he explains his sorrow and denounces the woman who has spurned him. Christine, an Austrian, listens to the broadcast from her apartment in Paris as she is attended by her maid, Lisette. The film shows that Christine previously would have been married to Robert, Marquis de la Cheyniest for three years. The maid a staunch loyalist to her employer Madame Christine is also a married woman with Schumacher; the gamekeeper at the country estate, for two years.
Christine’s past relationship with Andre is well known by her husband, her maid, and their friend Octave. After Christine and Robert playfully discuss Andre’s emotional display and pledge devotion to one another, Robert excuses himself to make a phone call. He arranges to meet Geneviève, his mistress, the next morning. At Geneviève’s apartment, Robert announces he must end their relationship, but invites her to join them for a weekend retreat to Robert and Christine’s country estate, La Colinière, in Sologne. Later, Octave induces Robert to invite André to the country as well. They joke that André and Geneviève will pair off and solve everyone’s problems. At the estate, Schumacher is policing the grounds, trying to get rid of rabbits. Marceau, a poacher, sneaks onto the grounds to retrieve a rabbit caught in one of his snares. Before he can get away, Schumacher catches him and begins to march him off the property when Robert demands to know what is going on. Marceau explains that he can catch rabbits, and Robert offers him a job as a servant. Once inside the house, Marceau flirts with Schumacher’s wife, Lisette.
At a masquerade ball, various romantic liaisons are made. In the estate’s dark, secluded greenhouse, Octave declares that he, too, loves Christine and they impulsively decide to run away together. Schumacher and Marceau, who have both been expelled from the estate after a fight over Lisette, observe the greenhouse scene and mistake Christine for Lisette, because Christine is wearing Lisette’s robe and hood. Octave momentarily returns to the house and, while there, Lisette talks him out of running off with Christine. Consequently, he sends André to meet Christine. When André reaches the greenhouse, Schumacher mistakes him for Octave, who he believes is going to steal his wife. He shoots and kills Andre, which Robert subsequently explains to his guests as an “accident”.
Watching this movie, you tend to understand the subject of differences in the social class; these are interesting phenomena on display that relate more generally to how society operates. For people of any stripe, there are the “rules of the game”, the norms and policies that specify proper behavior. But the game rules apply differently, depending on social class. For the upper-class people, the rules can easily be bent according to circumstances and convenience. For example Robert, Genevieve, and St. Aubin, who all belong to the privileged class, are quite willing to engage in illicit affairs. For them such peccadillos are merely minor lapses that can be overlooked in the larger scheme of things. But for the lower classes, the rules set up serious behavioral boundaries. For example, Schumacher knows that his boss, Robert, wants to rid the estate of rabbits, but he still cannot tolerate the poacher Marceau’s rule violation. But for Robert, Marceau’s rabbit poaching seems downright beneficial, and the usual prohibition against poaching can be set aside in his case. Similarly, among the upper-class set at La Coliniere, individual social outliers are tolerated only when they sport the wealth. Thus, both Robert, who has Jewish ancestry, and one of the guests who is conspicuously homosexual, are accepted as belonging to the upper class in-group, something not so easily attainable at the lower social rungs.
It is also interesting that Andre, Christine, and Octave all stand somewhat outside the circle of upper-class society. Andre is derived as a local hero and by the virtue it’s only a temporary affiliation with that class of society as his character just stands outside ordinary social contexts and represent idealized virtues. This is why they can gain universal acclaim, but the demands of this role are almost impossible to meet in practice for very long. Christine is the aristocrat imported from Austria, an outsider who struggles to adjust to the customs of the French gentry. Octave (played by Renoir, himself) is simply the tolerated friend of the aristocrats – the would-be artist who sees it all from the outside and can only express frustration at his inability to reconcile everyone’s (including his own) romantic dreams with reality.
Among the lower classes there are gradations, too. Schumacher, who tends to the grounds outside the main house, stands at a lower social position than the servants in the house, who work more closely with the gentry. Marceau, the poacher, is outside and below this social scheme altogether. Accordingly Schumacher follows the rules rigidly, while Marceau has no moral inhibitions whatsoever (he has nothing to lose), which unequally tilts their amorous face-off over Lisette from the outset. As for Lisette, she clings to her social status as Christine’s personal maid more fervently than she does to any other personal relationship.
I had to watch this film couple of times before I even began to see its great depth. Its art lies in what Renoir chooses to exclude rather than what he includes. The film ridicules both the upper and lower classes without dipping into either sentiment or cynicism. “Everyone has his reasons,” the Renoir character says at one point (though he prefaces it with “the most terrible thing is that…”).
One if the reason the film may have offended so many is its brutal hunting scene, in which the rich participants merely wait with loaded guns while the servants drive rabbits and birds into their path. Renoir shows animal after animal gruesomely shot down, and casts a shadow over his upper-class characters. None of the characters in ‘The Rules of the Game’ can help how they feel, even if they can help how they behave. The aviator behaves terribly, announcing during a radio interview how disappointed he is that the woman he made the flight for hasn’t bothered to show up. Likewise Marceau, who immediately begins to leer at and chase after the married Lisette.
The other scene where Marquis unveils a huge mechanical music box to his guests as the camera maneuver over the machine’s many moving parts, then over Dalio’s face, which registers a moving mixture of pride, anxiety and sadness. Without a word, we understand volumes about this man. The interesting character is Octave himself- performed by Renoir is more of a narrator as he connects with all the major characters in the film — he’s the only character comfortable hanging out with the servants and his costume ball of clumping bear looks too troubled.
This cinema is entirely a director’s film- The Rules of the Game is a crazy quilt, almost accidental and random, but held together by Renoir’s mercurial details and cinematography is a fitting highlight of this movie. Believe me no tricks are shot here. The technique is admirable throughout, with at least two sequences emerging as classics of their kind—a rabbit hunt, emphasizing the barbarity of the ritual, and a masquerade foreshadowing the finale, in which guests dressed as skeletons perform a grotesque dance of death
Renoir’s ability in trickling the characters and watching what happens is noteworthy. It’s over 75 years ago in a French chateau, he painted a portrait of each and every one of us. His personal statement and moving simplicity of his expression of a pacifist theme in ‘Grand Illusion’ or the class divide in’ The Rules of the Game’ or his colorful décor ‘The River’ which was shot in India ( This is where Satyajit Ray met Renoir in India for the first time) affords a memorable experience.
Renoir’s film’s style has had an impact on numerous filmmakers. One example is Robert Altman, whose Gosford Park copies many of Rules of the Game’s plot elements (a story of aristocrats in the country, aristocrats and their servants, murder) and pays homage with a direct reference to the infamous hunting scene.
The Rules of the Game is the complete, most coherent expression of a humiliating times of class divide, and in Renoir’s countenance of life and its realism……
- Written & Directed by Jean Renoir
- Produced by Claude Renoir
- Co-writer: Carl Koch
- Casting: Nora Gregor; Paulette Dubost; Marcel Dalio; Jean Renoir & Julien Carette
- Music by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (opening)
- Cinematography by Jean-Paul Alphen & Jean Bachelet
- Editing by Marthe Huguet & Marguerite Renoir
- Distributed by Janus Films (UK & US)
- Release dates: 8 July 1939
- Running time: 106 minutes
- Country: France
- Language: French