Renoir's look at bourgeois life in France at the onset of World War II. An assorted cast of characters - the rich and their poor servants - meet up at a French chateau.
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Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game at first appears to modern audiences to be a rather outdated comedy of manners. Released in 1939, a tale of European aristocrats and their servants attempting to balance their wives and mistresses seems a trifling concern given the impending global catastrophe. But the film was so controversial it was banned by the French government. Renoir was so dismayed he cut the film which was not fully restored until 1959. Time, though, has a way of opening our eyes to genius, and by 2002 a poll of critics had named The Rules of the Game as the third greatest film of all time, behind only Welles’ Citizen Kane and Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
The film’s plot is a traditional story of romantic intrigue amongst the elite. The aristocratic Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) has invited friends to his country house for a shooting party and evening entertainment. At the behest of his Austrian wife, Christine (Nora Gregor), la Chesnaye has invited the famed aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) who is in love with Christine. Adding to his troubles is his mistress Genevieve (Mila Parely) and Christine’s childhood friend Octave (Renoir himself). These romantic entanglements are paralleled by the already rocky marriage between gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) and Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) being threatened by a poacher turned servant Marceau (Julien Carette).
The plot alone requires a difficult juggling act, and Renoir’s keeps all these balls in the air through his technical mastery of deep focus. Deep focus is the ability to keep fore-, middle- and background in focus simultaneously. He is thus able to move one strand of the plot along in the foreground and another in the background trusting the audience to follow multiple action on screen. This also allows Renoir to create the illusion of spontaneity. Characters enter and exit the frame in both the foreground and background and sometimes move between the two. The audience, therefore, has the impression that the camera just happened to be where the action is taking place, a technique whose influence can be seen in the work of Robert Altman. In reality, Renoir painstakingly choreographed the action with exquisitely perfect detail, a style which heavily influenced the work of Robert Altman.
The Rules of the Game is not just a technical achievement, but uses film itself as a study in human emotions. For instance, during a show put on for the amusement of the neighbors, the love triangle between the servants bursts into the world of the wealthy as Schumacher chases Lisette and Marceau throughout the home. The previously well-mannered conflict between la Chesnaye and Jurieux follows that of their servants and turns to fisticuffs. Renoir changes the tone of the film to match the action. As the social customs begins to break down, the film begins to “break down” into farce.
Renoir casts a sharp eye on his nation’s elite. The rich in the film are consumed with romantic squabbles and are not even aware of the world outside their social circle, and their servants do nothing but mimic their employers. Renoir emphasizes their petty diversions to the grotesque. Their lives appear to have no meaning beyond their appetites for amusements. As le Chesayne cynically states after Schumaker points a gun at his guests, “It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives.” The willful ignorance of the French people towards an increasingly threatening Nazi Germany could not be far from Renoir’s mind.
This hollow state of being is highlighted the film’s final tragic note. The character who most believed in love is shot in a case of mistaken identity. Renoir deliberately mirrors his death with that of the rabbits hunted earlier that day to dramatize its senselessness. The shooting is called an accident, which is only partially true. Our host lies to avoid any unpleasantness. Even death cannot overcome the rules of the game.
With the benefit of hindsight, one could easily categorize Renoir’s film as a period piece, its technical brilliance and historical value respected but its message ignored. This would be a tragic mistake for human nature has not changed since 1939. We still create our rules to protect ourselves from the harshness of the outside world. It is enough of a struggle to manage even our own emotional life that we need a social pact to cope with relationships. But Renoir warns us to be careful that custom does not become a cocoon.