The Rules of the Game (1939)

Directed by Jean Renoir


It was unlikely that The Rules of the Game would be around today.  Released in 1939, it was quickly banned for being immoral, and then prints of the film were damaged, and it was only in 1956 that the remaining prints were discovered and re-released to the public.  Currently considered one of the greatest films of all time (#3 on Les Cahiers du Cinema top 100), this Jean Renoir film was a failure upon its release.  That initial failure, though, almost seems obligatory if a film ever rises to “great” status.  It seems to be a trend that a film will be released, fail to make back much of its budget and to be declared unspectacular, only for the film to grow over time.  The same thing happened for Playtime (Jacques Tati) and The Night of the Hunter, a Charles Laughton film considered by some to be the best movie of all time.

It’s gotten to the point that if a movie comes out and is immediately labeled a masterpiece, you expect its value to subside over the next decade.

Watching The Rules of the Game, a comic satire of French upper class culture, is a bit of an odd experience.  It’s a funny movie, but its comedy doesn’t feel any different than a run of the mill Woody Allen film or something even more broadly slapstick.  Knowing it was banned for immorality, you will strain to try and identify what precisely got the movie banned.  And despite the fact that the film has a message and a reason to exist, it’s ultimately a comedy with more Chaplin-esque physical humor than a typically “great” movie has.  It’d be like if you fell into a decades long coma, then woke up, and the doctor said, “yeah Ted, that 2012 talking bear movie with Mark Wahlberg, is universally considered the best movie of all time.  It only recently passed Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

It’s of course important to remember the context of when this film was made, mainly just the era.  If films were famously prudish through the fifties, you can imagine what they were like at the tail end of the thirties.  It’s a little odd to hear so much talk of affairs and illicit romances in a time when I usually imagine everyone was devoutly religious, the thought of non-marital relations a mortal sin, and that’s sort of what Renoir is trying to undercut here, that very perception.

The story revolves around a weekend getaway in the country, hosted by Christine and Robert.  Robert is conducting an affair with Genevieve, and a famous pilot, Andre, who has just returned from a long voyage longs for Christine, something Robert is well aware of.  There is also Octave, a family friend played by director Jean Renoir, who is secretly in love with Christine.  In the background of all this, Christine’s maid, Lisette, flirts with another hired hand, making her groundskeeper husband extremely jealous.

On the surface, these characters all fit seamlessly into our perception of upper class.  They dress and speak the part, host fancy dinners waited upon by a private waitstaff.  They hunt game on the property and drink and dance together.  They are people we only see in leisure, as if they’ve never had to work a day in their life and never plan to.

Andre, the pilot, is our entry way into this story.  His plane arrives following a long journey, and a mob of fans greet him like he’s the sixth Beatle.  When he learns that Christine didn’t show up, he mourns his fate openly to a reporter and says that he did this all for her.  Later he will try to commit suicide, and his friend, Octave, will convince Christine to invite him over just to placate Andre’s concerns and insecurity.

Robert knows all about Christine’s and Andre’s history.  It seems that Andre misread Christine’s kindness, in some context, and in a conversation between her and Octave, he tells her that she can’t mislead a man like that.  The connotation is that there are rules to whatever this game is.  The game, it seems, is social, all about the signs and gestures that go into communicating with the people around you.  In an earlier conversation, Lisette questions the plausibility of a platonic relationship with a man.

As the story crawls along and characters start to butt heads, we learn that Christine knows all about Robert’s affair with Genevieve, even urging the mistress to stick with her husband, and Robert seems to allow his wife to run off with Andre.  The bonds that hold the couple together, we realize, are rather flimsy.  Lisette, meanwhile, flirts with another hired hand, enraging her husband but demonstrating a complete disregard for her marriage.  It’s clear that she’s more devoted to Christine than to her husband, and eventually her husband begrudgingly accepts this.

The message seems to be that beneath the surface of all these manners, these characters are chaos incarnate.  They’re petty, insecure, jealous and quick to anger.  The pilot only flew across the Atlantic for a woman, the married couple are only married likely for social status, and Octave, who refers to Christine as a sister figure, is really in love with her.  Everyone is hiding their true selves, and through a few miscommunications and mistaken identities, Andre is shot dead when he tried to go run away with Christine.

It’s a moment that comes about because Octave ushered Christine away to a greenhouse, giving her the coat previously worn by Lisette.  Lisette’s husband sees this and thinks Octave is after his wife.  Octave leaves, planning on getting a coat for the escaping train ride with Christine, but Lisette begs him not to leave, her reasoning being that Octave could never financially afford the lifestyle Christine needs.  So despite his sudden urge to embrace life and his true passion, Octave gives up and offers the coat to Andre so he can run away with Christine.

When Andre shows up wearing Octave’s coat, Lisette’s husband believes him to be Octave and shoots him dead.  Soon everyone finds out what happened, and they all label it a misfortunate incident, acting as though Andre’s completely avoidable death was anything but.

They say that he didn’t understand the rules of the game.  Andre’s tragic flaw, it seems, was that he tried to embrace his true feelings, shedding the false exterior that everyone else clings to.  While Andre, open about his love for Christine from the start, pines for her, everyone else abandons what they claim to be after.  It’s not just that so many of the characters lust after the wrong person, but they can’t even find it in themselves to admit what or who they really want.  They hide behind a series of lies and regard Andre as a tragic example of what can happen if you break down these many social bonds and arrangements.

So The Rules of the Game is a satire.  It’s well-made and occasionally very funny.  From the start, the film establishes a chaotic tone and a protagonist (really like a Woody Allen character) who can’t bother put up with the social pretenses around him.  These characters are shallow, confused and hostile.  The film, released originally on the 150th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution, seems to tear down the type of people that the revolution sought to break down in the first place.

Maybe Christine and Robert and company aren’t kings and queens, but they act as though they are, and they are treated and served like they might as well be.  They live in a large mansion in the country, something smaller but no less revered by its guests than the Palace of Versailles.  One of the characters, perhaps it was Genevieve, even speaks dourly of Christine for not being French.  Christine is from Vienna, and this background seems to be enough to challenge her marriage to Robert, as if it were a royal arrangement.

So 150 years later, Renoir’s film suggests that these characters are still out there.  The monarchy might have been abolished, but the cultural impact remains.  These characters are small-minded, selfish and greedy, and they’re convinced they’re each a king or queen in their own right.

While the satire evoked a sense of history, the film was released at another historical turning point.  “This remarkable film was photographed in the Sologne valley, where a year later French armies were fighting their last battles against the Nazis. While the film was in production, Hitler’s troops invaded Czechoslovakia.”

Maybe you could argue that the film was forgotten because of the war.  It was poorly received at the time of its release, and despite the biting undertones, on the surface it’s a celebratory film, full of characters drinking, dancing and fighting with unexpected glee.  When two characters are about to tear each other’s throats out, they seem to find sudden common ground, choosing instead to pat each other on the back, both sharing a lack of conviction in their own behavior.  It’s as if they become friends because they both don’t care about their lives the same amount.

And then the war broke out, and the tone of the film suddenly feels outdated and unimportant, given these new circumstances.  When it was re-released in the late fifties, The Rules of the Game didn’t seem to immediately find a receptive audience.  A New York Times review by Howard Thompson dated in 1961 criticizes this film as lazy, unimaginative, and the acting uneven.  Twenty years after its initial release, even, this film hadn’t found its place.  Maybe it just takes that long to understand the intent or simply to agree with Renoir’s satire of French culture at this time.

But now it’s considered a masterpiece, Renoir’s best film and one of the best ever.

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