Blindspot 2016: The Rules of the Game (1939)
The arbitrary rules of high society have long provided ample fuel for artists. The people who have the most, who have the most influence in the world, can exist in bubbles labyrinthine in construct.
The Rules of the Game is a fitting title for this film, which was directed by the legendary Jean Renoir. It’s about people who cannot, or will not, sort out their feelings about one another healthily. By the end of the movie, no one his happy and someone is dead. Why? Because everyone is playing by the rules.
Two sets of rules, really. The aristocrats, who go to absurd lengths to maintain a sense of decorum at all times, and their servants, who are more open and honest among each other but who adhere to a rough facsimile of their bosses’ behavior.
Similarly to my last Blindspot film, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Rules of the Game is primarily about jealousy, and how people handle jealousy when they can’t express such emotions openly. Like the best comedies of manners, it assembles a large cast of characters and lets them loose with one another. This is an energetic film, and Renoir’s confidence in his narrative in infectious.
The first act is dedicated to letting us get to know the cast. The film opens as Andre (Roland Toutain), a pilot, arrives in France to a hero’s welcome after beating Charles Lindbergh’s record time in flying across the Atlantic. He is greeted by his friend Octave (Renoir) who informs him that the woman his former lover, Christine (Nora Gregor), is not present to witness his arrival. Andre is dejected, and given the chance to make a statement about his achievement on radio, he all but cries into the microphone like a boy spurned by a prom date. Christine is married to Robert (Marcel Dalio), a wealthy noble. Robert knows about Christine’s previous affair with Andre and her friendship with Octave that teeters on the edge of platonic. He doesn’t seem to mind, perhaps because he is sleeping with Geneviève (Mila Parély). They live on a large estate, and are tended to by a large host of servants. Most prominent in the story are the married couple Lisette (Paulette Dubost) and Schumacher (Gaston Modot). Lisette tends dotingly upon Christine, and it’s more than hinted that she loves Christine more than her husband.
I think that’s everyone? Good. After this long sequence of introduction, everyone listed above gathers at Robert and Christine’s estate for a weekend of hunting, drinking, singing, and dancing. The party is a mammoth work of brilliance by Renoir. From a bird’s eye view, you could easily think that not much happens over the two days we spend at the manor. The characters hunt, drink, sing, and dance. But Renoir’s camera is far more a snake than a bird. It wriggles through the crowd and shows the characters at their weakest moments, when they still can’t say how they feel but betray themselves in ways that a less delicate eye than Renoir’s might miss. In on scene, Robert unveils a new toy of his, an enormous music box. As the music plays, the camera pans across the music box to Robert’s face, which is overjoyed. It’s an extraordinary shot, highlighting the both the absurdity of his lifestyle and, well, how infectious any sort of childish joy is.
The Rules of the Game tells its story like that, in flashes where characters let their guards down and reveal more to Renoir’s camera than they ever would dare if they knew we could see them. Not that it matters; the party’s guests are at times so absorbed with the goings on that they wouldn’t know or care otherwise. At one point, a jealous husband chases a man who has been flirting with his wife through the manor with a gun. Even as he fires shots most of the guests are too busy with their drinks and music to notice.
This is a fascinating, funny, deeply engaging movie that I want to see again. Renoir packs so many details into every shot that I want to see it with my eye on the background. The Rules of the Game is one of those titanic films whose reputation as one of the all-time greats precedes it to a daunting degree. I’m happy to report that it more than lives up to its reputation.