The Rules of the Game
Director: Jean Renoir (yes, related to THAT Renoir)
Starring: Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir
The Rules of the Game is a difficult film to review for its sheer enormity. Right up there with Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather, it is consistently considered one of the ten best films ever made. The only reason you may never have heard of it before is the fact that it’s French, and American audiences aren’t the keenest when it comes to foreign films, but it is a daunting subject for any lover of film to undertake. After all, what can I possibly say about The Rules of the Game that hasn’t already been said elsewhere?
The answer to that difficult question (the question which, by the way, has kept me from writing about the other great films mentioned above) is to regale the reader with my personal relationship with the film. When I first saw The Rules of the Game, it didn’t have much impact. I took it at face value. Man, if there’s ever a film to be a little patient with in order to peel away the outer layers, it’s this one. I then saw it a second time not long after because it was playing on the big screen. Still not that much of an impact. Years passed, and although I had the presence of mind to pick up the DVD when it went on sale, the DVD went unwatched… until today. I did a little bit of reading before watching it, watched the introduction on the DVD by the director, and suddenly found myself entranced, moved, and unexpectedly crying at the end of the film. Now I am starting to understand The Rules of the Game. Now I am feeling its impact.
At face value, The Rules of the Game is a comedy of manners. The plot centers around married couple Christine (Gregor) and Robert La Chesnaye (Dalio) and their respective lovers, Andre (Toutain) and Genevieve (Mila Parely). A group of guests are invited to La Chesnaye’s country estate for a hunting party. There are machinations, secrets, revelations, and, ultimately, a tragedy. The lives of the servants downstairs imitate those of their masters, as Christine’s maid Lisette finds herself juggling more than one man as well. It’s very Gosford Park in this respect – as a matter of fact, these two films would make a damn near perfect double feature.
Why, then, if The Rules of the Game is a simple comedy of manners, was it so controversial upon its initial release? It was hated – vocally hated, despised, and reviled upon its initial release, which lead to Renoir desperately but uselessly trying to recut the film in order to please his audience. The original print of the film was ultimately lost during World War II, but thanks to film restorers in the fifties, a very close version to the initial one was reconstructed. Almost two decades after the fact, the film received the critical admiration that was completely lacking in its initial run.
The reason for the controversial nature of the film is Renoir’s very vocal statement about his hatred for the elite wealthy bourgeoisie. He calls it a corrupt, rotten section of society, doomed to lead everyone to what he calls “minor catastrophes” in his introduction to the film. With this unconcealed venom in mind, it gave me a different spin on the film. I had always viewed it as a comedy of manners, a level on which the film does work. However, watching Renoir talk with malice about upper class society, it started to shed a new light on the plot devices in the film. It was odd, but it really was as if someone had drawn back the curtain from my eyes and I saw the film in a new light. That hatred is written all over the screen. Given France’s history with the upper class and the film’s historical context (released in 1939, after all), it is easy to see that the public wanted nothing to do with a film so vehement in its animosity towards France’s own ruling class.
The film is populated with dozens of characters (again making a good pairing with Altman’s Gosford Park), which Renoir treats with an odd stoicism. Considering the strength of the hatred that Renoir himself articulates, there is a feeling of “judge for yourself” when it comes to the characters. The people in the film are not caricatures, but really feel like fully formed people. With this detachment in mind, it was doubly unsettling for me to finally “find” the anger in the film. It is not obviously painted across the opening shots, but buried beneath the surface, roiling in its passion.
All this vehemence is centered around the idea of love, easily the central theme of the film for me. Andre Jurieu is a national hero, and the film opens on him as he just completed a transatlantic flight in under 24 hours. The press crush around him, desperate for an interview over the radio. However, he immediately zeroes in on his pal Octave (Renoir himself), who sadly tells Andre that his lover, Christine, did not come to meet him at the airstrip. Andre is crushed, disappointed, upset, and hotly tells the press that despite his heroic journey, he is saddened because of a woman. Andre is in many ways the key to understanding the film. He is the most sincere and ardent character, the character who idealizes love, who views it as a noble and righteous principle. He cares nothing for practicality, but embodies a noble spirit. He follows rules of chivalry. In many ways, he is like the knights of old who would say they would die for the love of their lady fair. Andre is all of these things, and he is the most soundly mocked character in the entire movie. All of these noble ideals about love and passion are viewed as childish and completely unnecessary by the ruling class. His lover even complains of Andre being “too sincere.” Too sincere? I wasn’t aware there was such a thing. Andre is constantly at odds, then, with his lover and the world she inhabits because he is too idealistic. He refuses to play the game of love, instead preferring the headlong noble passion of love. This concept of love is far too inconvenient for the wealthy class, so Andre’s fate is sealed. That these people treat him with such utter contempt is infuriating. Yes, Andre is a bit much. He is meant to be. One rather wants to pull a Cher from Moonstruck, slap him across the face, and tell him to “Snap out of it!” Yes, he is childish as well. However, he is idealistic, and a national hero. And he is in no way worthy of the treatment he receives.
If Andre doesn’t fit within the world of the ruling class, neither does Octave, but for different reasons. If Andre is the over the top but noble knight, then Octave is his sensible squire, the person who sees every single character around him for their true selves. He is the jester of the piece, the clown, calling characters out in a hidden manner, and then manipulating them in return for certain favors. Octave is the only character who moves fluidly between the upstairs and the downstairs, befriending both the wealthy and their servants. Unlike Andre, he understands the cruel rules of the game of love that is played by the wealthy, and he utilizes this knowledge to move people around. Although he understands these cruel rules, he doesn’t necessarily believe in them. In easily the most devastating sequence of the film, Octave lets his usual guard down for a moment and admits to also being in love with Christine, someone he has known since childhood. (Is EVERY male character in love with Christine? She’s a French Mary Sue… but that’s part of the point of her character…) Christine admits to also being in love with Octave; surprising, given his lack of social standing, lack of riches, lack of youth, and lack of looks. Is she being serious? We do not know. Instead, we view the scene through Octave’s eyes, as he suddenly emits a light that shines brilliantly bright. He rushes back to the house to get Christine’s coat so they can run away together, where he is stopped by Christine’s maid, Lisette (who also had an affair with Octave). Lisette, who is more enamored of her mistress than she is her husband, admonishes Octave, saying that in love, “the young are for the young, and the old are for the old.” She tells Octave point blank that he cannot make Christine happy. He stops. His shoulders hunch over. We see the reality of the situation overcome him, and that Lisette’s words have hit the nail the on the head. At that moment, Andre reappears, Octave sees him, and sees that this noble, handsome hero is the one for Christine, not himself. This is the one scene in the film that shows a character who is legitimately in love. Real love. Not an ideal, not a cruel game, but real, rooted love. It is brief and utterly heartbreaking, and throws all the other cold, calculated actions of the film into harsh contrast. Renoir’s portrayal of Octave is devastating and quite possibly the best performance in the entire film. For a director to create such a powerful film while also providing such a powerful performance is amazing.
Christine and Octave.
There is so much more to this film. While watching it, I took notes – copious notes – about certain scenes, certain lines, certain shots. There is so much depth to the film, so much more than I articulated here. Again, this is an instance of having too much to talk about while also knowing that it’s all been said before. This film is a true classic, a true Top Ten Film. It took a couple viewings, I admit, but now the profundity of The Rules of the Game is starting to sink in. It made me angry, upset, and very very sad. Unexpected feelings for what is, at face value, a comedy of manners.