The Rules of the Game

Dangerous Poets

Film essay by: Witney Seibold

I once compared Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece “The Rules of the Game” to the works of Anton Chekhov. I was led to this comparison by the film’s use of a naturalistic acting style (which stood in juxtaposition to mainstream American films like “Gone with the Wind”), and tantalized by the phrase “neo-realism.” A comparison to Chekhov is, however, not entirely accurate. If I would compare Renoir’s film to the work of any playwright, it would be Molière. The film may be “naturalistic” and “realistic,” but, let’s face it, “The Rules of the Game” is a full-blown farce. Just look at the comic chase around the kitchen table.

But then, it’s not entirely a farce either. It’s an ecstatic explosion of theatrical emotions. It’s about the dalliances of couples, often comic, always unwieldy, sometimes damaging, frequently rewarding, and forever rampaging chaotically over our good senses.

But then, it’s not entirely an examination of upper-class relationships and infidelities either. It can also be seen as a political metaphor, and an dissection of hypocritical upper-class mores. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the rich are depicted not as politicos or able-minded deciders, but disorganized selfish buffoons capable of just barely maintaining their relevance and lifestyle through a haze of preoccupied sexual fumbling. The servants that work for them seem slightly more clear-headed until you soon realize that they are only emulating their masters. They are all just playing a Game.

Indeed, in 1939, it was seen as such a damnation of the French upper crust, that many audiences stormed out. People stayed away in droves, and critical reviews were unkind. There was even news that someone tired to burn the theater down at the film’s premiere, although Renoir debunks that in an introductory musing. Later, it would be banned by the Nazis.

But then, it’s not entirely a political metaphor either. It can be seen, and I think I’ve finally reached my main thesis, as the prefect adaptation of drama onto the screen. It takes the ancient traditions of drama and the familiar characters of comedies and dramas from time immemorial, and allows them to breathe. In its own way, “The Rules of the Game” is a perfect movie. It’s no wonder that it is often listed on lists of the Best Films of All Time.

We have André Jurieaux (Roland Toutain) the pilot, the smitten lover. He flies around the world, and can only pout when he lands because his true love is not there to greet him. Indeed, he says so to the radio reporter there to interview him. He is young and dramatic, and is thrown into a state of Byronic self-pity over this simple slight. He is berated by his best friend Octave (Renoir), a jolly fat man who serves as the story’s fool; ever funny, somewhat clueless when it comes to his own affairs, but ineffably wise when it comes to the affairs of others. Renoir wisely put himself in the most interesting role; the man who is deeply insecure, and achingly desirous of human contact, but manages to bring light into a room.

The woman André was waiting for was Christine (Nora Gregor). Christine is German, idealistic, believes in love, despite the fact that her husband Robert (Marcel Dalio) is having a frank affair with Genevieve (Marina Parély). Robert is a collector of wind-up curiosities, and more than one allusion is made to the mechanical nature of man. Genevieve is bitter that Robert has called off their affair (at Christine’s behest), even though both of them seem to want the affair to reluctantly continue.

Christine has open conversations with her maidservant Lisette (Paulette Dubost) about the nature of infidelity and how women should handle it when their husbands cheat, and how they should go about conducting their own affairs. Lisette is married to the groundsman Schumacher (Gaston Modot), who is very stolid and prim and resents that a low, roguish trapper named Marceau (Julien Carette) is putting the moves on his all-too-eager wife.

There is a gathering at a country chateau. There are pleasantries and bubbling insecurities. There are resentments and unspoken hostilities. André has been invited, even though that will only make the weekend all the more awkward for Christine. People are alternately frank and secretive. Most of the natural truths of infidelity and class are spoken openly, and cruel opinions are plainly shared. There is a hunt. In true theatrical fashion, Christine espies Robert and Genevieve canoodling in a field, but in true cinematic fashion (as we become the eye of the character in the moment), she spies them through a telescope.

A rabbit is shot, and we see it die. Audiences are haunted by this shot. Not only because of the violence, but because of the sudden and horrid realization that these people, for however bubbly and real they may be, are resting on an unacknowledged resentment that can only end in death. When, later, a man is shot (over a case of theatrical mistaken identity, no less), we feel prepared.

What are the rules of the game? You may have a lover, but only if your spouse retains outward dignity and respect. You may talk about your affairs, but it is strictly taboo if you say you love them. At one point, a party guest (I forget which one) says that Christine cannot run off with André (which she is tempted to do after the telescope scene) because it’s against the rules.

Does the film have a central story? Not really. Much was improvised. The film have a central character? Not really. It’s more a survey of country life.

A Molière-like farce with funny characters who are defined broadly, but feel human. A realistic drama of honesty and naturalist acting. A hothouse infidelity melodrama which is, as I think of it, is reminding me more and more of Anna Karenina, a book which I am currently reading. “The Rules of the Game” is all of these things.

Robert Altman famously said that “The Rules of the Game” taught him the rules of the game, only he was speaking in terms of filmmaking. Not only is Renoir able to handle a slew of well-defined characters, and clearly delineate each of their relationships to one another, but he was able to do so in a feat of virtuosic camerawork. Renoir was not the first to employ “deep focus,” and he would certainly not be the last (much is talked about Orson Welles’ use of the technique in “Citizen Kane”), but he used it most masterfully. He was able to set the camera in a single place, and light huge extended areas, making sure all the rooms in the shot were in focus, extending far away from us. He was able to masterfully stage comings and going on several visual planes all at ones, as character rushed to and fro in the enormous mansion where this all takes place.

Watch the party sequence. Then watch it again. Each time you see it, you will notice a new detail on a new plane that you have not previously noticed. Depending on what you are attentive to, the film will look like one of many things: the bedroom farce, the parody, the tragedy, the realist drama.

There is a play within the film, and characters put on costumes. One man in his time plays many parts. There is an added level of artifice, and Renoir, a theatrical man at heart, seems to be inviting us to acknowledge the falseness of the film itself; we are, after all, watching actors on a screen. Few films are brave enough to bring their own reality into your thinking, and I often admire films, books and plays that can do it with such skill. Another playwright I will compare “The Rules of the Game” to: Luigi Pirandello.

Renoir, usually a humble man, is given right to brag at one point: in a conversation he had with Dalio (available on Criterion’s masterful DVD release of the film), he admitted that he filmed the single best shot in the history of cinema. There is a moment when Robert unveils the latest piece in his collection: an enormous automated calliope. Dalio’s reaction shot to the unveiling was shot and reshot over and over again for two days. Renoir wanted to make sure that Dalio’s expression was just right. Amused, embarrassed, proud, but a little ashamed to be so proud, realization that his lifelong ambition has – at once – brought him happiness, and made him realize what a churlish exercise his collecting has been to the wider world. Perhaps that’s why audiences reacted so violently to this film: it made them realize that, on the bring of war, they were just playing a game.

The film was censored, cut, recut, mangled, mistreated. It played on TV and in repertory houses using what scraps of film had remained through the years which, following the war, wasn’t a lot. Luckily, the people at The Criterion Collection, meticulously tracked down every last bit of missing film, ever word Renoir had to say about his masterwork, and managed to clean it, rebuild it, and to put in on DVD in a form that we are now lucky to have. The result is astonishing. Every glittering detail, ever nuanced performance, in now there in front of us again, ready to enjoy for a new generation.

Anyone who is even remotely interested in cinema needs to see Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game.” Its complexity and virtuosity has not yet been matched.

Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 1:33 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. All right. I’m one of your fans now.

    (As an aspiring part-time writing amateur, I would appreciate input on my blog should you be inclined.
    In any case I’ll enjoy more of your work in future.)

  2. Witney, I’m glad you finally wrote about a film that I’ve actually seen (because I always try to read your post if I’ve seen the film). It’s a great write-up and I liked that you talked about Renoir’s visual technique and how it relates to what he intends to communicate to us.

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