We dive back into the Sight & Sound Top 10 in this entry, yammering about director Jean Renoir’s remarkable upstairs/downstairs tragicomedy The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939). The film provides a glimpse into the lives of the rich and remarkable in the halcyon days just before the Second World War, as it tracks the affairs and entanglements of an upper class clique while they party and hunt at the country estate of the Marquis de la Cheyniest. The marquis is trying to break things off with his mistress just as a heroic pilot makes a brazen attempt to steal the marquis’ wife. The film also follows the romantic shenanigans of the staff, with a poacher-turned-servant cozying up to a flirtatious maid who happens to be the gamekeeper’s wife. The setting is ripe for farce, and Renoir keeps the conversation and the action lively, escalating the insanity as romantic advances are accepted or rebuffed. But The Rules of the Game is not content to be just a comedy of manners or a madcap party. For all the comedic antics, this is a film of complex, thoughtful individuals with hurts every bit as strong as their lusts, and Renoir’s overriding cynicism finds the melancholy waiting to consume the mirth. So many films and tales urge you to follow your heart; The Rules of the Game suggests you may be better off using your head. (106 min.)
J. – I saw The Rules of the Game many, many years ago because of its reputation as arguably being the greatest film of all time. That’s an unfair burden to throw on any movie, and I remember walking away from it thinking, “That was good, but I’m not sure why it’s a big deal.” To be honest, I think I was too young to really appreciate the complexities of the film and its attitude toward sex and relationships. Now that I have a few more years of living and whole lot more classic films under my belt, I feel like I can give The Rules of the Game the appreciation it deserves. Is it the best film of all time? — No. But it’s a magnificent piece of work, and a incisive dissection of the human condition.
I mentioned in our last SASY Wrap that the Sight & Sound films I have enjoyed most so far tend to be visually amazing, with story and character not being as strong a priority for me. But with The Rules of the Game it is pretty much the direct opposite. I didn’t find the visuals to be particularly striking — they certainly aren’t bad, but they aren’t great either. But the script, the acting, and the direction are superb, and kept me completely engaged. Rather than creating a dynamic image in the frame, The Rules of the Game is all about character interaction. As such, I really struggled to find screen grabs for this yammer, because the interplay between characters is typically too involved and full of elaborate choreography to be adequately captured in a single shot. There’s always a lot going on in this film (most of it intensely interesting), which is remarkable given that it doesn’t really have much of a plot.
S. – The focus on character was reflected in the filming, the sets always played second fiddle to the the actors. The various scenes are all still elegant, as befits an aristocratic lifestyle, but there is a spareness to many of them that allows the camera to follow people around and keeps your attention on the unfolding action. And the acting deserves centre stage, the dialogue is sharp and the nuance brought by the main players makes for compelling viewing. The story told is brutal in many ways, the risk you take when you dare to love someone is played out through multiple pairings and hopes are carelessly crushed by people foolishly chasing someone who doesn’t want them. All this turmoil is set against a backdrop of a privileged and extravagant lifestyle, with everyone aware that a carefree and vivacious appearance is mandatory. The concurrent themes of romantic entanglements examined between the haves and have-nots is deftly handled and makes for a complex and thought-provoking film.
At the centre of everything is Christine (Nora Gregor), married to the wealthy Robert (Marcel Dalio) and entangled with the national hero of the day, aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain). She appears somewhat distant from her husband, indifferent to the smitten André and only truly happy when in the company of her long-time acquaintance Octave (who also happens to be a close confidant of André’s). If that is not complicated enough Robert has recently decided to break off his long-term affair with Genevieve and devote himself to his wife. The whispers of André’s affection for Christine have reached Robert’s ears, and Octave (who is played by director Jean Renoir) has been pressured into trying to win over Christine for his friend. A hunting party is proposed and all of the protagonists gather at Robert and Christine’s country estate along with a society crowd for what must at least appear to be a jolly good time. So I would agree, J., that there is a lot going on in this film and I was completely drawn into the whole complicated fiasco.
J. – I definitely think The Rules of the Game is the most thematically and intellectually complex film we have tackled so far. I’ve actually felt rather intimidated at the prospect of writing up a coherent discussion, but I’m sure we’ll manage somehow. You’ve given as concise a run-through of the basic plot as is possible for this film, which hopefully will serve us well as we proceed. There’s endless things that one could say about Renoir’s take on love and the facades of high society (and I’m looking forward to addressing all of that), but I think I’d like to start with the direction of the film. You mentioned the relatively sparse sets that allow the camera to follow characters about, and that’s totally true. Renoir’s camera does an excellent job of being another player in the drama and he choreographs the action flawlessly. There’s one scene in particular when the guests at the country estate are saying goodnight at the top of the stairs, and Renoir lets the camera linger in a massively long take as people converse, stumble around drunk, look for their rooms, engage the staff, blow a hunting horn, etc. So much is going on in the fore, mid, and background at once in The Rules of the Game and all of it is important.
One of the best examples is the arrival of André at the estate. Christine gives a speech about her relationship with André in an attempt to quash rumors among the guests that the two are having an affair, but behind André and Christine stand Robert and Octave, who are having an inaudible conversation of their own that acts as a commentary on what Christine is saying. Robert transitions from concern about what his wife is going to say, into relief, into a jokey nonchalance. The film is packed with scenes like that where the position of characters in the frame and/or the reactions of background characters become central to the meaning of what is transpiring. It’s a trick that Orson Welles will employ very well two years later in Citizen Kane, but usually with two or three actors; Renoir pulls it off with a brigade of performers.
S. – The effect is voyueristic, you feel that you are there unseen yet able to see everything, including all the small glances, grimaces and hesitations that someone would refrain from if they were conscious of being watched. It allows events to seem realistic in a way that is admirable for such a convoluted storyline. I loved the scene you mentioned where it seems like the entire household makes their way through the hallway in one direction or another and in varying states of inebriation. The parallel experiences of the serving staff and the guests are also brilliantly realised. While there is an unbridgeable divide between the two groups the acceptance of that fact allows them to interact in a surprisingly free manner with one another, confident that everyone knows their place. It also allows us to see the similarities between the two are far greater than the differences. However, when things get difficult, even though the misery is keenly felt by both sides, it appears the underclass bears the greater burden.
J. – Well, they’re the ones who can be fired. The integration of the upstairs/downstairs formula into things is done fantastically well. The unfolding drama among the wealthy is mirrored to some degree by the love triangle that develops around Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who is in an uneasy marriage with the estate’s game keeper, Schumacher (Gaston Modot, the leading man of L’Age d’Or). The game keeper has a particular loathing of Marceau (Julien Carette), a local poacher. Despite being caught poaching rabbits on the marquis’ land, Marceau charms Robert into hiring him as a house servant. The poacher takes a liking for Lisette and trouble starts brewing.
OK, so we have the upstairs explained, the downstairs sorted out, and the directing style hammered out — now let’s really get into this thing. You alluded above to one of the things that I found to be among the most interesting aspects of the film, which was the desperate need that the characters feel to present a blithe facade. These are people who are forming new loves and others watching established relationships crumble before their eyes, but there is a constant attempt to put forth a smiling face and an air of indifference. Genevieve is clearly crushed by Robert’s decision to break things off with her, but she does everything she can to always appear like the witty butterfly of the party. Likewise, Christine is clearly shaken by her husband’s infidelity, but goes out of her way to keep Genevieve from leaving the house and even pretends to have long known about and accepted their affair. The characters in the film are constantly plastering over their true emotions with a “why don’t we all just have a nice time” attitude. It’s to the actors’ (and Renoir’s) credit that the audience gets to see the little chinks in everyone’s armor as the movie progresses, a collection of hurts that accumulates into tragedy. But what I find particularly interesting is what the film apparently has to say about those who honestly express their feelings and passions.
S. – Well if you are not going to play by the rules… In some scenes the penalty for submitting to your despair is downright callous. Robert dismisses his lovelorn gamekeeper with a joke even though he too is facing rejection and betrayal by his wife. Octave occupies a middle-group above the servants but still outside the circle of the elite. He is more savvy than the buffoonish Schumacher and appears resigned that his love for Christine can never be realised due to the divide in their social status. When a confused and cornered Christine allows him a sliver of hope though, he too learns that forgetting his head has dire consequences regardless of how genuine his desire may be. There is a bleakness underlying this film that leaves a bitter note underneath the veneer of frivolity and sophistication. Despite having the appearance of a romantic comedy for much of the run time the slow realisation that the rules of engagement are immutable left me feeling stunned and depressed at its close.
J. – That’s a very understandable reaction, but one that would hardly be expected from the first three-quarters of the film. I’m rather surprised that you didn’t mention André in your role call of people who let love get the better of them. André starts out being utterly consumed by his passion for Christine, so much so that that he even absentmindedly crashes his car. But that crash, and indeed most of André’s flailing desire (like a fistfight with another admirer of Christine), is played for laughs — he is a man made to look petulant and ridiculous by his actions. And André is mirrored by Schumacher among the servants. As with André, passion and jealousy leads to violence that is played up for laughs, as the gamekeeper races around the mansion trying to shoot Marceau. If you think about that happening in a real-life situation, it is deadly serious stuff, but the film uses it as an opportunity for playful farce, and as a way to comment on the happy-go-lucky veneer of the well-to-do (Robert’s wealthy guests think that Schumacher’s murderous rampage is pre-arranged entertainment).
Many films that use violence for comedic effect let the matter resolve in some sort of contrived ending where the good guys get their reward, the bad guys are punished, and nobody suffers unduly. The Rules of the Game, however, doesn’t let the matter drop and slowly backs away from the peak of farcical insanity to begin moving the pieces toward a darker, if inevitable, place. You can dance around the lit fuse as frantically as you like, but the powder keg will eventually explode. And of course it is the two characters driven by passion that undo each other, even though they bear each other no grudge. You said that the ending depressed you, but do you feel like the downbeat resolution was earned after all the shenanigans of the rest of the film?
S. – The ending was earned and believable, I think it was the change in tone that shook me so. Up until the climax the angst and humour had been dished out in fairly equal measure. All levity vanished in those last few minutes and as the smiles evaporated the devastation was even more powerful. Far from a Hollywood ending it seemed as though anyone who had allowed their passion to rule their actions was left worse off. And there were no real bad guys. The characters were complex (except maybe André) with a tendency to be rather self-absorbed, but there was no leering villain or vindictive reprobates. It was all too real that in just muddling through to try and discover a meaningful relationship all that was achieved was harm.
I think the plot descriptions we have offered up indicate the convoluted connections between the ensemble at the hunting party but there is even more to contemplate than what we have touched on. Yet it is eminently watchable, rather than confusing. This film gives you much to think about but always remains entertaining and briskly paced. I can see myself coming back to The Rules of the Game again in the future, it was completely engrossing and no surprise that it has such a high ranking on the Sight & Sound list.
J. – I’m sure it’s obvious from my comments above that I think the ending was earned, and it is crushing. And what I particularly love about the ending is that the film manages to shift towards the darkness in such incremental steps that you barely notice that the wheels are about to come off until it just seems horribly inescapable. I think a lot of that comes down to the character of Octave, and I find it interesting that Renoir chose to play that part himself. This is a film with eight major characters and a host of minor characters, but Octave on his own serves as the heart and soul of the film. The action on screen tends to correspond with whatever mood Octave happens to be in — when he’s feeling happy, the film is happy; when he has a moment of depression over the state of his life, the film plummets into darkness; and when he’s stuck in a bear costume, the insanity is at its peak.
In some ways this film reminds me of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. A bunch of people go on vacation, have trouble in love, drink too much, and don’t really do much of anything — but it is utterly compelling. And like when I read The Sun Also Rises, I feel like I am inadequately placed to fully explain my reactions to The Rules of the Game — or rather the reasons why I reacted as I did — so I hope our discussion doesn’t feel too erratic or half-baked. There are a number of films we have watched so far that I feel will be wonderful to see many more times down the line, but I’m guessing The Rules of the Game will be among the best for forever finding new nuggets of honest profundity.