Those who already know Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game will be delighted to see it on a top-notch DVD. Those who don’t already know the film will merely be amazed. Devotees of the movie will be surprised by the numberless little details they never noticed before, while those new to the movie will be swept away by seeing the work of a master auteur at the top of his form. All of us, whether veteran viewer or virgin, will appreciate how this DVD shows Renoir’s somber nighttimes, his brilliant interiors and his long shots of deepest deep-focus. Dazzling in its invention and speed, matchless in its ensemble acting, The Rules of the Game is that rarest type of theatrical work: a heartbreaking comedy.
Renoir’s movie, a satire of the haute bourgeoisie on the eve of the Second World War, depicts a selfish social world, joblivious to all but its arcane rules and strict proprieties. Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Grégor) who tries to defy the rules, and André Jurieu (Roland Toutain), who cannot understand them, are martyred by their society.
In his introduction to the film on the first disc of this two-disc set, Renoir says, “I just wanted to make… a pleasant movie that would at the same time function as a critique of a society I considered rotten to the core and which I still consider rotten to the core.” When the movie opened in Paris in 1939, shortly after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, it was greeted with outrage. A member of the audience threatened to burn down the theatre. The Parisian audience hadn’t been fooled by Renoir’s blithe intention “just…to make a pleasant movie.” They got the movie’s message.
Renoir declares that The Rules of the Game is a movie without structure. He says it not once but twice, and then he takes it back. He also declares that the movie has no central character, and then he takes that back. But viewing the movie in chapters, we can see that it follows the structure of classic French comedy–Molière, Marivaux, Beaumarchais, Musset–and that it does have a central character–Robert de la Chesnaye (Dalio).
First comes the aviator André Jurieu. He is in love with Christine who is married to Robert Marquis de la Chesnaye. Robert has just decided to end his affair with Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély), in order to be, as he puts it, “worthy of my wife.” Next comes Christine’s maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost). She is married to the game-keeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) who is justifiably jealous of the poacher Marceau (the irrepressible Carrette). Moving in and out of these unstable triangles, is Octave, played by the director himself.
Each of the principal characters has at least one big scene; some of the minor characters have very important lines. Renoir gives the actors credit for having helped write the screenplay, and the movie does have the impromptu feel of a stage play in the making. However, with many actors on screen at once, seen from many different points of view, it must all have been blocked as rigorously as any movie by Hitchcock or Hawks.
THREE OR FOUR SCENES I LIKE IN ‘THE RULES OF THE GAME’
1. The arrival at Le Bourget on an October night of André Jurieu. After his solo crossing of the North Atlantic, André spies Octave in the tumultuous welcoming crowd. Octave! he exclaims. André! cries Octave. (Friendship is an important theme in the movie.) Did she come? says André. She couldn’t, says Octave. André says to an entire nation over the radio, “I undertook this adventure because of a woman. She isn’t even here to greet me…If she’s listening, I declare publicly that she is disloyal!” André’s petulant words establish his heroic inability to understand the rules. They constitute the hubris for which he is punished at the end.
2. The shooting party. This is the movie’s most famous scene. It shows the systematic slaughter of rabbits and game birds by the guests at La Colinière, the country estate south-east of Paris of Robert de la Chesnaye. The kill is relatively modest, but the shoot is filmed in a way that suggests something of epic proportions, like “The Massacre of the Innocents.”
3. The scene in the kitchen. The Rules of the Game is an explicitly upstairs/downstairs movie. At dinner in the kitchen, the servants’ rules and proprieties are similar to those of their masters; so is their gossip. Their language is rapid and epigrammatic, exactly like that of Robert and his guests, and Lisette’s flirtation with Marceau mirrors that of Christine with André. In a virtual epitome of the title of the film, the chef (Léon Larive) gives a speech on the subject of métèques, translated loosely here as “yids.” The chef points out that de la Chesnaye, whose grandfather was a Rosenthal from Frankfurt, knows the finer points of making potato salad. “Say what you like,” he pronounces, “but that’s what I call a real gentleman.” Two other of the principals are in fact métèques in the sense of being strangers living in a foreign country: Christine is an Austrian and Schumacher comes from Alsace.
4. The triumph of Robert’s life as a collector. Robert collects elaborate automata shaped like Negro slaves or singing birds, intricate music boxes and “amusing” 18th-Century clocks. At the end of one of the movie’s most extended scenes, a party given in honor of André with pantomimes and a danse macabre, Robert stands before the curtain on an improvised stage to reveal his latest acquisition, a colossal music-box. Panning from left to right, Renoir’s camera lingers on a pastoral detail on the instrument: the painting of a nymph. It then continues slowly to show three automated figures, intercut with close-ups of Robert smiling and mopping his brow. He is the very embodiment of pride and embarrassment, of triumph and self-doubt. Years later, in an exchange with Dalio on the steps of the château, Renoir says, “I think it’s the best shot I’ve ever done in my life.”
Half buffoon, half sage, beloved by all, Octave is nevertheless the person who causes the greatest misery in The Rules of the Game. His well-intentioned actions bring about the movie’s fateful end.
In a magnificent scene with Christine just before the end occurs, she tremulously tells Octave, “For three years, my life has been based on a lie.” He replies, “Listen, Christine…today everyone lies. Pharmaceutical fliers, governments, the radio, the movies, newspapers, so why shouldn’t simple people lie as well?” A moment later, his general disillusion merges with an acutely personal disgust. Once the protégé of Christine’s father, he could have been, like him, the conductor of a great symphony orchestra. “Contact with the public…That’s the thing I wished I’d known.” He spits into the water and says that that’s all he knows how to do in life. “It’s just unpleasant to be reminded what a failure I am, a good-for-nothing, a parasite.” In this long Checkhovian speech, the most existential in the movie, the quintessentially French Octave, irrepressible, voluble, lovable, reveals himself to be as much a métèque as Robert or Christine.
In the material accompanying The Rules of the Game are interviews with Renoir; his son, Alain, an assistant cameraman on the film; and the actress Mila Parély. There are also delightful excerpts from a BBC documentary and from one directed by Jacques Rivette. From the first of these we learn that Renoir had the misfortune of growing up among the indulgent, half-naked young women who served as models for his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (hence Octave’s playful freedom with the maidservants at La Colinière); that he now and then sold one of his father’s paintings to meet his needs as a director (hence the fleeting appearance of one of his father’s paintings in a bedroom at the château). From the second documentary we learn that he regarded Octave as complementary to the others(“He’s like a cork that can fit in the necks of various bottles.”); that (shades of Pirandello!) the characters had to be kept from taking the movie over. The excellent commentary by Alexander Sesonske enlarges on Renoir’s remarks, making this one of those few DVDs where the extra materials are truly worthy of the film.
In the year before making Rules of the Game, Renoir made his other masterpiece, Grand Illusion, as well as the only slightly less masterly Bête Humaine. But in the opinion of many, Rules of the Game is Renoir’s most complex and challenging film.
All in all, a most welcome addition to The Criterion Collection.
The Rules of the Game, Criterion Collection. B&W, 106 minutes, French with optional English subtitles. Original version of the film reconstituted by Jean Gabourit and Jacques Durand with the approval and advice of Jean Renoir.
BEN SONNENBERG lives in New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.
He and Amiel Melnick have completed a translation of Fernand Crommelynck’s play, The Magnificent Cuckold.