Rules of the Game
Comedy, Drama, Romance | 110 Min | Released: 1939
Director: Jean Renoir
Starring: Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Mila Parély, Odette Talazac, Claire Gérard, Anne Mayen
Our Rating: 8
Black & White
In Rules of the Game, Aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) lands at Le Bourget Airfield just outside Paris. He is greeted by his friend Octave (Jean Renoir), who tells André that Christine (Nora Gregor) – the Austrian woman André loves – has not come to greet him. André is heartbroken. When a radio reporter comes to broadcast André’s first words upon landing, he explains his sorrow and denounces Christine. She is listening to the broadcast in her Paris apartment; she is attended by her maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost). Christine has been married to Robert, Marquis de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio) for three years. For two years, Lisette has been married to Schumacher (Gaston Modot) – the gamekeeper at Robert’s country estate – but she is more devoted to Christine. Christine’s past relationship with André is openly known by her husband, her maid and their friend Octave. After Christine and Robert playfully discuss André’s emotional display and pledge devotion to each another, Robert excuses himself to make a telephone call. He arranges to meet his mistress Geneviève (Mila Parély) the next morning.
At Geneviève’s apartment, Robert says he must end their relationship but invites her to join them for a weekend retreat to Robert and Christine’s country estate, La Colinière, in Sologne. Later, Octave induces Robert to invite André to the estate as well. They joke that André and Geneviève will begin a relationship, thereby solving everyone’s problems. At the estate, Schumacher is policing the grounds and trying to eliminate rabbits. Marceau (Julien Carette) – a poacher – sneaks onto the estate to retrieve a rabbit caught in a snare. Before Marceau can escape, Schumacher catches him and begins to escort him from the property when Robert demands to know what is occurring. Marceau explains that he can catch rabbits and Robert offers him a job as a servant. Once inside the house, Marceau flirts with Lisette.
At a masquerade ball, various romantic liaisons are made. André and Christine declare their love for each other and plan to run away together. Robert and André come to blows over Christine. In the estate’s dark, secluded greenhouse, Octave declares that he too loves Christine – who is having doubts about André – and they decide to run away together. Schumacher and Marceau, who have both been expelled from the estate after a fight over Lisette, watch Octave and Christine in the greenhouse; they mistake Christine for Lisette because Christine is wearing Lisette’s cape and hood. Octave momentarily returns to the house, where Lisette implores him not to leave with Christine. Octave sends André to meet Christine. When André reaches the greenhouse, Schumacher mistakes him for Octave, who he believes is going to leave with his wife. Schumacher shoots and kills André; Robert passes this off to his guests as an accident.
The Rules of the Game is remembered as a commentary on the moral callousness of the European upper class and their servants just before the beginning of World War II. While making the film, Renoir knew a new world war was coming; he later said there was a sense of it in film, and wrote “it is a war film and yet there is no reference to the war”. This sense of doom began just before shooting started in January when Barcelona fell to Franco and throughout the production when Prime Minister of France Édouard Daladierrecognized Franco’s Spain, Italy entered Albania and Adolf Hitler prepared his Polish invasion. Renoir articulated this unmentioned theme of the film by saying:
what is interesting about this film, perhaps, is the moment when it was made. It was shot between Munich and the war, and I shot it absolutely impressed, absolutely disturbed by the state of mind of a part of French society, a part of English society, a part of world society. And it seemed to me that a way of interpreting this state of mind, to the world hopefully, was not to talk of that situation, but tell a frivolous story. I looked for inspiration to Beaumarchais, to Marivaux, to the classical authors of comedy.
Renoir wanted to depict people as they truly were at that point in history; he said The Rules of the Game was “a reconstructed documentary, a documentary on the condition of a society at a given moment”. He believed this depiction was the reason behind the film’s disastrous premiere, saying “the audience’s reaction was due to my candour”. The Marriage of Figaro, an inspiration for the film, had also been considered controversial for its attack on the class system. The Rules of the Game remained controversial with the French public shortly after World War II when it was once again banned. Renoir’s biographer Roland Bergan said the film hit a raw nerve with the public by depicting “people, who might have had an influence in shaping the world, [but] did nothing to prevent an advance of Fascism; some of whom, indeed, actually welcomed it”.
The rabbit hunt scene is often compared to the senseless death that occurs during war. Renoir said he wanted to show a certain class of people killing for no reason. Renoir himself had never killed an animal and called hunting “an abominable exercise in cruelty.” Bergan wrote “in the great set piece of the hunt, the callous cruelty of the guests is laid bare as they fire at any rabbit and bird that moves after the beaters have led the game to slaughter. There was no need for Renoir to accentuate the analogy with world events.”
The film’s most-quoted line of dialogue, spoken by Octave, is “Everyone has his reasons”. Renoir’s sentiment of objective humanism for the film’s characters is articulated by Octave’s remark and shows his empathy for the people he was simultaneously criticizing. Richard Roud praised Renoir’s role in the film, saying “it is as though he included himself through a kind of scrupulous honesty: he could not exempt himself from this portrait of society; he did not wish to stand outside. And Renoir/Octave serves as the standard against which reality and fiction can be measured.” In his original outline for the film, Renoir said he intended all the characters to be sincere and that the film would have no villains.
Renoir said André was “the victim, who, trying to fit into a world in which he does not belong, fails to respect the rules of the game”, and that André thought he could shatter the rules by a world flight, while Christine thought she could do the same by following her heart. The “rules” of the film’s title are its only villain. Renoir said, “the world is made up of cliques … Each of these cliques has its customs, its mores, indeed, its own language. To put it simply, each has its rules, and these rules determine the game.” Renoir said all human activity is “subject to social protocols that are less apparent than, but just as strict as, those practiced by Louis XIV“. Renoir’s son Alain said the film continues to be relevant and popular because it shows the artificial joy of the modern age in contrast to the rules of that (or any) age.