Rules of the Game (1939) dir. Jean Renoir
Starring: Marcel Dario, Nora Gregor, Jean Renoir
By Alan Bacchus
Robert de la Chesnaye (to the Servant): “Please, will you end this farce?”
The Servant: “Which one?”
Generally cited in most international polls as one of the greatest films of all time, Rules of the Game has proven to be a major influence on the unique sub-genre of ensemble-chamber films and a major influence on Altman, Lars von Trier, Woody Allen, Denys Arcand, Luis Bunuel and many others. It’s a biting farce and critique of the social follies of upper-class French aristocrats.
A snobby French aristocrat, Robert de la Chesnaye, is planning a hunt at his country estate, and he invites not only his friends, but their husbands, wives, mistresses and lovers as well. In Renoir’s world, wives and mistresses are interchangeable. Husbands have mistresses, and their wives are mistresses to other men. Even the mistresses have other lovers. And everyone is invited to the party. The title is appropriate because Renoir’s upper-class twits have ‘rules’ to their social games, where everyone is supposed to accept their dalliances as such. But only the upper-class can be naïve enough to think their social superiority will immunize them against envy and greed. That’s how it starts, but of course we know the house of cards will eventually fall – it always does.
Renoir deftly juggles half a dozen plotlines and character relationships throughout the film. He uses pre-Citizen Kane deep-focus photography to show action and dialogue in the background and foreground. It was innovative then and is still fresh and exciting to watch today. After establishing all the characters and their relationships with each other, the film moves to another level with the famous hunting sequence. Renoir crafts the scene well, with a terrific montage of the killing of rabbits, pheasants and various other animals. The foreshadowing isn’t subtle, but it provides the film with a darkly comic edge.
In the evening during a stage masquerade show for the guests, the energy of the film is ramped up to another level. Jealous anger boils over causing a series of arguments and fights throughout the house. These scenes, which make up much of the second act, create one of cinema’s most famous set-pieces – a masterpiece of movement and choreography.
Unlike Kane, which begins with a bang and announces itself as a cinematic rule breaker with force, Rules of the Game is more subtle. At the outset it may not be an obvious masterpiece, but as Roger Ebert puts it, ‘You can't simply watch it, you have to absorb it.' By the end the characters get into your skin. And it's not just the follies of the rich, but every substrata of class as well – the wait-staff, servants and grounds keepers all watch and participate in the elaborate game.
The impending war, though not specifically referenced, provides another level of socio-political context. Renoir made the film prior to WWII and didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, which makes his achievement even more remarkable. With the war on their doorstep, the naiveté of the ruling class and the triteness of their ego-driven preoccupations are even more scathing.
Unfortunately, the result was a complete dismissal of the film by critics and the public when it was released, as well as being banned by the Vichy government for being unpatriotic. Like Citizen Kane, it wasn’t until the late ‘50s that Renoir's masterpiece could be appreciated as a film years and decades ahead of its time.
Rules of the Game is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.