The Rules of the Game (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Graham Fuller

Produced by Claude Renoir, Sr.; directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Jean Renoir, with the collaboration of Carl Koch; director of photography Jean Bachelet; production design by Eugène Lourie and Max Douy; edited by Marguerite Renoir; starring Marcel Dalio, Nora Grégor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir, Mila Parély, Odette Talazac, and Pierre Magnier. DVD and Blu-ray, B&W, 106 min., French dialogue with optional English subtitles., 1939. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment,www.Image-Entertainment.com.

 

If Jean Renoir had never made The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu), Robert Altman’s mordant Gosford Park (2001), scripted by Julian Fellowes, would never have existed and Fellowes may never have conceived television’s current British heritage phenomenon, Downton Abbey. The class tensions and amities in the series have often echoed and diluted those in Renoir’s magisterial 1939 classic. Downton has literalized the anxieties of aristocrats and servants with the approach of the Great War, while wanly exploiting upper-class sybaritism. Renoir also focused on frivolity upstairs and gossip and backbiting downstairs but sublimated the approach of World War II in visual metaphors—notably the massacre of wild game at the shooting party and the “Danse Macabre” skit with its dancing ghosts and figure of Death.

The shoot in the “Christmas at Downton Abbey” episode, during which the handsome Downton heir gleans from a distance that all is not well between Lady Mary, his true love, and her vicious newspaper baron fiancé, apes the shoot in Renoir’s film. Here, the Austrian marchioness Christine (Nora Grégor) believes she has spied her husband, Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), passionately kissing his mistress; in fact, their kiss signals the end of their affair. Soapy, explicit, and addictive, Downton may not be the greatest legacy of The Rules of the Game—after all, it inspired Truffaut, Resnais, and Chabrol—but its mass popularization of Renoir’s concept serves by default to emphasize the irreducible power, subtlety, and resonance of its luminous antecedent.

Released last November by Criterion for the first time in a Blu-ray edition as well as a superb two-disc DVD for the second time in eight years, The Rules of the Game was the fifteenth film Renoir made during the Thirties. For the filmmaker, both as a sociopolitical critic dismayed by contemporary French life and as a fluid metteur-en-scène who had hitherto experimented considerably in different styles and genres, it proved to be the zenith of his achievement. It was also the movie that more than any other attributed the coming war to the moral decline of Old Europe.

Primarily for its depiction of the bourgeoisie, the film met initially with outrage and Renoir was obliged by exhibitors to shorten it, from ninety-four to eighty minutes. Banned by the Nazis in 1940 and by Vichy in 1942, it was rereleased at eighty-six minutes in 1945, but not until André Bazin championed it in Cahiers du cinéma in 1952 did its reputation start to grow. Bazin died before seeing the 106-minute version restored by Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand in 1959, so his auteurist appraisal of the film—which takes into account its subversion of realism, its nonstar casting, and its symphonic quality—was based entirely on an incomplete cut. As for Renoir, who wasn’t involved in the reconstruction, he wept when he saw how close it was to his original.

After the films Renoir had made during his Popular Front period—Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935), La Vie est à nous (1936), and La Marseillaise (1938)—the antiwar masterpiece La Grande Illusion (1937), and the poetic realist La Bête humaine (1938), it must have demoralized left-wing observers that he next chose to tell a story of romantic shenanigans among the rich, their friends, and servants. It was the oblivious decadence of that society—“the malady that gnawed at the contemporary world”—and the collusion of its members in excusing a killing that Renoir targeted. Decadence goes hand in hand with finessed or mechanical behavior, emblematized in planes, radios, and Robert’s ecstatic love of mechanized toys, that had supplanted spontaneity and natural feelings. “What is natural nowadays?” Christine is asked by her maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), whose adulterous attraction to the poacher Marceau (Julien Carette) is based on his earthy sexual insolence.

Nothing if not prophetic, the film augurs collaborationism. The gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot), Lisette’s husband and a fascistic Alsatian who would have fought for Germany during World War I, is completely exonerated by Robert when he commits a murder at La Colinière, Robert’s estate near Orléans. As Keith Reader writes in his 2010 monograph on the film, “the tediously irrepressible bonhomie” of another of the guests, the General (Pierre Magnier), who concludes at the end that, for excusing Schumacher, Robert is “not short of class, and that’s becoming rare,” may “veil distinctly Pétainist sentiments.” For all its urbanity and farcicalness, the film was, specifically, an angry response to prime ministers Édouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain’s signing of the Munich Agreement on September 29, 1938. Renoir began writing the script the following month.

Renoir’s masterstroke was his diversion of his upstairs-downstairs comedy of manners specifically targeting bourgeois etiquette into an allegorical farce that lurches into tragedy. Only in retrospect is it clear that the killing of André Jurieux (Roland Tutain), a heroic aviator whose lack of social sophistication and adherence to an outmoded chivalric code causes him to breach the rules of the game played by the elite, is predestined—as the death of millions was foretold by the empowering of the Nazi Party.

The film begins with the arrival of André, following his record-breaking transatlantic flight, at Paris’s Le Bourget airport. Deliberately overdetermining the skein of references, Renoir knew that the French associated the airport with the future isolationist Charles Lindbergh’s arrival from America in 1927 and Daladier’s return from Munich. Though as morose as Daladier apparently was, André, too, is welcomed as a conquering hero. Sealing his eventual fate, he publicly announces his disappointment that Christine, whom he loves, hasn’t come to greet him; she fleetingly evokes Paul Reynaud, the vociferous antiappeasement finance minister who was the only member of the cabinet not to greet Daladier at Le Bourget. Along with duplicity, appeasement is one of the cornerstones of the amatory realpolitik of The Rules of the Game. André’s bohemian friend Octave (played by Renoir and serving as his onscreen surrogate), a childhood friend of Christine who floats freely between the classes and acts as a go-between, arranges for André to visit La Colinière.

This is where acts two and three unfold and where Robert’s upper-class mistress, Geneviève de Maras (Mila Parély), vainly attempts to rekindle their dying affair as Christine, pursued by André, Robert, Octave, and the opportunistic Saint-Aubin (Pierre Nay), loses her emotional bearings. She is Europa in disarray after Munich. A Jewish-Austrian actress, Grégor had fled Vienna with her husband, the Prince of Starhemberg, who was sought by the Nazis, and was cast by Renoir after Simone Simon had asked for too much money. Dalio, too, exemplified Renoir’s counterintuitive casting, his Jewishness affording the film its critique of prewar French anti-Semitism.

At La Colinière, Robert hires the wily Marceau, Schumacher’s nemesis, as a domestic; Lisette, possibly once involved with Octave, promptly begins a flirtation with the newcomer. On André’s arrival, Christine skillfully (and truthfully) deflates the speculation of the gossip-hungry that she has been sleeping with him by explaining that the hours they spent together before his flight were “under the all too rare signs of friendship.” Typical of a film in which interior scenes are primarily composed of deep-focus master shots, in many of which the camera pans, tracks, and dollies as it wanders around La Colinière like an unseen but all-seeing extra guest, Robert and Octave, behind Christine but on the same focal plane, radiate trepidation through their unhappy smiles and body language, as if she, like André at the airport, were about to crack the façade of propriety.

We next see the servants frankly discussing Robert’s descent from a Frankfurt Jew, a subject too delicate for discussion upstairs. The scene twists expectations when the chef denounces his previous employers who, though they did not entertain Jews, “ate like pigs,” and applauds Robert who, “half-caste though he is,” knows how a potato salad should be prepared. It’s less that the chef’s received anti-Semitism is dormant, however, than that for him the appreciation of food takes precedence over racial tolerance. As Octave says, “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons”—not the benign humanistic platitude it is often thought to be, but a condemnation of self-interest.

The above conversation is enfolded into the first of three matching deep-focus shots in which Schumacher is bested by Marceau, the film’s Dionysian nature spirit. As the discussion of Robert’s Jewishness continues, Schumacher asks Lisette if she is free and is rebuffed. Leaving dismally via the stairs, he passes the jaunty Marceau, who Lisette seats on her right (as Christine inappropriately seated André at dinner). Marceau turns away when Lisette tells him she is Madame Schumacher, but after a cut the two exchange lascivious smiles. Next morning, Lisette finds Marceau polishing shoes and plays hard to get before they canoodle on the floor in the servants’ area, where Schumacher, approaching from a distance, catches them. Later, Schumacher chases Marceau from the same room after he’s trysted with Lisette. These rhyming shots typify Renoir’s use of deep space to establish emotional hierarchies: Marceau may be lowlier than Schumacher but his freedom from constraint raises him above his rival in the Darwinian scheme—ironically, since Marceau desires to wear a uniform.

The film’s two great set-pieces show the mass slaughter of game at the hunting party shoot—a virtuosic, rapidly cut montage prefiguring André’s killing and the coming war—and the masquerade held in André’s honor. The latter incorporates a show put on by guests, the climactic skit being their comic Walpurgisnacht, which triggers the collapse of the social order. Still believing Robert and Geneviève to be entwined, Christine leads away the lecherous Saint-Aubin, evading Octave and André. If the plummet into chaos symbolizes Europe after Munich, then Christine’s spurning of Octave when he appeals to her to help him out of his bear suit satirizes France and Britain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich.

Whereas André contains his jealousy, Schumacher acts on his, smashing through the “walls and barriers” that separate the classes by firing shots at Marceau as the party guests scatter; Robert’s professed hatred of such divides is borne out by his secluded tête-à-tête with Marceau, who behaves as if he were the superior. Robert, who’s slightly effeminate, unexpectedly slugs André. André proves a self-righteous bore who sabotages his conquest of Christine by suggesting she stay with his mother. She, the loyal wife, transfers her affections from Saint-Aubin to André, and from him to Octave, who disparages André. None of the principals is what he or she seems; ethics are flexible. The world is built on lies and false fronts. Only the boorish Schumacher is resolute. Outside, in the dark, he shoots André, believing him to be Marceau. With Octave and Marceau expelled from La Colinière, all the déclassé elements are finally removed, allowing their betters to continue “dancing on a volcano,” to use the phrase, coined on the eve of the 1830 revolution, that Renoir invoked when discussing the film.

Most of the DVD’s extras have been imported from the 2004 disc. Most precious is the excerpted 1966 Jacques Rivette TV documentary in which he reunites Renoir with Dalio at “La Colinière.” Renoir discusses Robert’s lack of purpose, Christine’s awakening to the brutality of love, and the scene in which he filmed himself and Dalio reacting to Christine’s speech about her friendship with André.

Also invaluable is the audio commentary written by Alexander Sesonske and recorded by Peter Bogdanovich in 1989. It describes how Renoir, breaking with naturalism, was inspired by Musset’s Les Caprices de Marianne (1833) and Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro (1778), a fierce pre-Revolution play. Not content with the love triangle of André-Christine-Robert and the interceding friend Octave, culled from Musset, he complicated the intrigue by adding a fifth wheel in Geneviève and blended in the downstairs triangle of Marceau-Lisette-Schumacher, with Christine acting as Lisette’s confidante and implied love object. Unfortunately, Bogdanovich was forced to read Sesonske’s text so quickly that this part of the commentary is confusing.

The new Criterion release also repeats interviews with assistant set designer Max Douy, clearly not a man to cross; the director’s son Alain, who assisted the cinematographer Jean Bachelet; and Mila Parély, who talks engagingly about playing Geneviève and suggests Renoir had a thing for Grégor. Douy died in 2007, Renoir fils in 2008, Parély this January. New to the 2011 disc is an interview with the authoritative Renoir expert Olivier Curchod.

All the expert opinion, critical analysis, and first-person accounts can’t explain how Renoir, working extemporaneously up to a point, unerringly pulled off the film’s theatrical realism. The extended farce of the second act is a miracle of emotional and physical choreography, while its poetic use of depth of focus preempts that of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland. How, too, did Renoir create such a rarefied milieu that, though it is three-quarters of a century old, still speaks to our own time, when “everyone has their reasons”? Somehow it was all in his head.

Graham Fuller has written about cinema for Sight & SoundFilm CommentThe New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, among many other publications. His Website is at inalonelyplace.com.

To purchase The Rules of the Game on Blu-ray or DVD, click here or here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.