Amazingly, I have something in common with the great Jean Renoir. In high school, I helped author and direct a one-act play that has some remarkable similarities with The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu). My intention was to turn the murder-mystery genre on its head while keeping with certain clichés, such as setting the play on a train (incidentally, a train bound from New York to Paris). As with Renoir’s film, the play was a critique of modern upper-class society through an exposé on the irony and hypocrisy in conventional etiquette. My teacher at the time (bless her heart) insisted that the play have a moral to it. Being filled with artistic pretense even at such a meager age, I refused to instill a moral in the story from the outset, preferring instead to see where the story took us. In the end, the teacher didn’t see the moral, which was surprisingly subtle and powerful (in my mind), and I fought with her to gain a couple points back that she had previously knocked off. This was, quite truly, the first and last time I ever exercised anything resembling the beginnings of artistic creativity. Best quit while you’re as ahead as you’ll ever get.
Before The Rules of the Game, I had seen from Renoir only The Grand Illusion, though I happen to own Renoir’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, a double-disc from Criterion along with Kurosawa’s film. Renoir’s style has been called “poetic realism,” and that seems accurate. No offense intended toward Truffaut or Godard, but Renoir’s French cinema is one that draws little attention to itself and its maker and more to what the screen captures, which perhaps likens him more to Bresson. This style has an American echo in the films of Robert Altman, whose Gosford Park plays tribute to The Rules of the Game while distinguishing itself as decisively 21st century. If you haven’t seen Gosford Park yet, learn from my mistake and watch Renoir’s film first.
Stylistically, one of the aspects of the film that grabs your attention is the foreground-background interaction. Renoir’s eye is highly three-dimensional, and his deep lens brings to focus and attention the goings-on behind the main action. Once everyone has arrived at the country chateau, Christine tells the group about the relationship she has shared with André, while André stands beside her. Christine’s previously noted social awkwardness as a result of being an outsider from Salzburg is uncomfortably evident during this scene. Behind and between the two of them are Robert, her husband, and Octave, the family friend (played by Renoir). These two squirm and make knowing glances toward one another as Christine early on breaks the conventional rules of society’s game. Renoir’s positioning of the four figures also establishes the conflicted relationships present. From left to right, the order is André (foreground), Octave (background), Robert (background), and Christine (foreground). The two in the back are what separate the two on the front from an active relationship: Octave constantly discusses with André the impossibility of attaining Christine’s affections. The reason for this is Christine’s marriage with Robert, who also stands behind. And by placing Christine and her husband on the right half and André and Octave on the other, Renoir divides the screen into competitive halves.
The titular issue is presented rather straightforwardly. However, probably to avoid viewers’ oversimplification, Renoir’s introduction states plainly that the film is not about “manners,” per se. Manners certainly play a dominant role, but they serve as a means to an end. They reveal that the characters are preoccupied with superficialities and social customs rather than truth and integrity. In the film’s opening scene, André lands his plane to a swarming press crowd after a record-breaking flight across the Atlantic. When Octave breaks the news that Christine is not there to greet him, he furiously rants into microphones that the woman for whom he made the flight didn’t even have the decency of welcoming him back. Octave chastises him for his childishness, when he is in fact a “hero.” André’s immediate break of cultural rules establish the importance of the rules in the film.
Further, the film is at pains to affirm and reaffirm that its characters are involved in what is nothing less than a “game.” Life in general is referred to more than once as playing cards, plays are staged casting the film’s main characters as the performers (some dressed as animals), and they foray into the woods for a competitive round of hunting. The hunting scene contains numerous close-ups of rabbits and pheasants being shot while the men and woman laugh, howl, and fight over whose shot it is. The deaths of the animals seem less a statement about Renoir’s animal ethics and serve rather to lend a gravity to the scene of which the main characters are unaware.
In the film’s finale, a character is shot in the midst of an otherwise lighthearted series of fights between lovers and ex-lovers. The death that occurs is labeled an “accident,” though only the most superficial aspect of it could be called accidental. The film is quite enjoyable and funny until its ending, when the comedy becomes a tragedy, not so much because of the death but because of the characters’ blithe reaction to it.
Notes: Everyone but Christine (the outsider) is well aware of the rules. They teach her while breaking the rules themselves. Rules broken: constant cavorting outside of marriage, complaining of Christine to radio press, Christine showing affection to Parisian men, Robert’s mistress Geneviéve, Octave’s interaction with maid, maid’s husband posted at country house, Marceau sets traps on Robert’s property, Robert doesn’t want fences on property, Geneviéve invited to house for week, Marceau’s interaction with maid, Christine kisses André, Christine tells all about André & herself while holding hands, Christine seats André at her right, chef won’t obey woman’s food orders, Christine chats with Geneviéve about intimate life with Robert, Christine confesses love to André, Christine refuses to let André talk with Robert (“We’re in love. What does it matter?” “But Christine, there are still roles.”), maid’s husband fights with Marceau/Robert/André, he gets gun, maid gives her cape to Christine, Octave running off with Christine, maid tells Octave it’s okay when it’s for fun but not really living together, husband shoots André. FIlm’s last words regarding Robert: “He has class, and that’s become rare. That’s become rare!”