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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Rules of the Game

Director: Jean Renoir
Country: France
Year: 1939

“The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.”
Octave, in Rules of the Game

“This magical and elusive work, which always seems to place second behind Citizen Kane in polls of great films, is so simple and so labyrinthine, so guileless and so angry, so innocent and so dangerous, that you can’t simply watch it, you have to absorb it.”
Roger Ebert

Background

First off, if you’re thinking of reading the book first, let me warn you: the book is way different. I’m not even sure why Renoir bothered to keep the title. Kinda misleading.

We’re far enough in this series that we’re watching the second or third films by a few of these directors. I’ve already written about Jean Renoir when we watched Grand Illusion back in April, so I’ll skip over his biography this time and focus on the film.

What is Rules of the Game about? Reading the SYNOPSIS section below, you might imagine (like me) that Rules of the Game is a sort of tragicomic La Ronde-style froth about a series of romantic couplings and un-couplings. But you (and I) would be (at least partially) wrong.

“It is a war film,” wrote Renoir. “And yet there is no reference to the war. Beneath its seemingly innocuous appearance, the story attacks the very structure of our society… I showed a society in a process of disintegration.”

According to Dudley Andrew, Rules of the Game is “…the most complex social criticism ever enacted on the screen.”

See, now don’t you feel silly for underestimating? Let that be a lesson to all of us.

The milieu and the characters of Rules had been gestating in Renoir’s mind for some time, but he was spurred to commit his vision to celluloid by an unexpected state of artistic freedom and the 1939 European zeitgeist:

First, the success of Grand Illusion and La Bête humaine allowed him to form his own production company, under the auspices of which he could make the films he wanted to make, at his own pace and without studio interference.

Secondly, the realization was gradually dawning on Europeans that perhaps ceding Czechoslovakia to Hitler wasn’t such a great idea, after all; large-scale international war appeared to be inevitable. Renoir was particularly dispirited by (what he saw as) the blithe indifference of the upper middle class, whose self-obsession and short-sightedness had helped to create the nightmarish situation in the first place.

Thus inspired and unfettered, he began filming Rules of the Game even before a script had been completed:

“I had this subject so much inside me, so profoundly within me, that I had written only the entrances and movements, to avoid mistakes about them. The sense of the characters and the action and, above all, the symbolic side of the film was something I had thought about for a long time. I had desired to do something like this for a long time, to show a rich, complex society where – to use an historic phrase – we are dancing on a volcano.”

Though the satirical elements of Rules of the Game seem muted by today’s standards, they rang out loud and clear to audiences in 1939 Paris. Of course, the audience at the premiere was likely comprised largely of members of the haute bourgeoisie – the very class satirized by the film.

There were catcalls and near-riots, the film was savagely panned, and Renoir was forced to excise 23 minutes in an attempt to remove the offense. Despite the drastic cuts, the wartime French government banned Rules of the Game, denouncing it as “a betrayal of the glory of France.” Mon Dieu! When the Nazis took over, they double-banned it.

Adding insult to injury, the building where the original negatives were stored was bombed by Allied planes. For years, Rules of the Game was only seen rarely, and then in its truncated form. In 1956, some rabid Renoir fans scoured film archives for every remaining foot of film and, with Renoir’s assistance, reconstituted it to (almost) its original length.

Today, Rules of the Game is widely regarded as one of the Best Films Ever. The British Film Institute, for example, ranks it third, just behind Citizen Kane and Vertigo.

A few discussion points, courtesy of Nick Lacey:

  • Do the farce-like contrivances of the narrative work against the ‘realist’ way in which the film is shot?
  • With whom are our sympathies meant to lie?
  • Is the film obviously about 1939 or is it necessary to know that Renoir was making a comment about a society on the brink of war?

I’ll add one of my own:

  • Rules of the Game vs. Gosford Park vs. The Shooting Party – compare and contrast.

Synopsis

“This entertainment, set on the eve of the Second World War, does not claim to be a study of manners. Its characters are entirely fictitious” we are told by the reliable text on the screen.

Then we get a poem!

“Sensitive hearts, faithful hearts
Who shun love whither it does range
Cease to be so bitter
Is it a crime to change?
If Cupid was given wings
Was it not to flitter?”

A female radio reporter is working her way through the crowd gathered to welcome aviator Andre Jurieu; he has crossed the Atlantic in just 23 hours! He lands, and the airfield is mobbed by fans, but the Aviator only has attention for his friend Octave (played by Renoir himself). Octave has bad news, though: “She” did not come to greet the conquering hero. As we come to find out, “she” is Christine.

The radio reporter finally reaches the Aviator, and thrusts a microphone in his face. The petulant celebrity, though, uses the opportunity to chew out Christine: “I made this flight for a woman. She’s not here to welcome me… I tell you this publicly: She’s disloyal!”

Cut to: A rich woman (Christine?), listening to the radio broadcast, being dressed by her servant, Lisette. After turning off the radio, Christine asks Lisette some rather indelicate questions about her love life: How long she has been married, how many lovers she has, whether she holds hands with her lovers, etc.

“What about friendship?” she asks, finally.

“Friendship with a man?” responds Lisette incredulously. “When pigs have wings!”

Christine goes into the next room to join her husband, and he proudly shows her his latest acquisition: A Wind-Up Musical Negress! Yes, really. He also reveals that he heard the broadcast, knows that the Aviator was talking about her, but it’s not a big deal: “…a small token of affection. He mistook it for love. Men are so naïve.”

Christine is glad she doesn’t have to keep any secrets from her oh-so-progressive husband, with his greasy hair and his European attitudes about marriage. Of course, as soon as she turns her back, the dog is on the phone, arranging a booty call with his mistress, Madame de Marras.

“Love as it exists in society is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins,” the good Madame proclaims to her swanky friends, one of whom is apparently in love with Christine.

Keeping track so far?

  • Aviator loves Christine
  • Christine loves her husband (more or less)
  • Christine’s husband loves Madame de Marras
  • Madame de Marras’ card-playing hetero friend loves Christine
  • Madame de Marras’ gay friend will later get a crush on the Aviator
  • Octave loves Lisette and Christine (yup; forgot to mention that earlier)

Perhaps I judged him too harshly: The Continental (Christine’s husband) is now breaking things off with the Madame. “I decided last night to become worthy of my wife,” he declares gallantly, but I don’t trust him, and neither does the Madame: “I see the family picture: knitting, the slippers and lots of children…” she replies, smirking.

Soon enough, she has used her sneaky womanly wiles to talk him out of the breakup.

Back to the Aviator: He’s in bad shape, moping around, driving his car into a ditch and driving his friends crazy. “So you can’t have her like a glass of wine!” shouts his exasperated friend Ocatave. “Get help and get off my back!”

The Aviator still doesn’t understand why Christine didn’t greet him on the tarmac, and that gives Octave (played by the director, remember) the setup to deliver the titular line of dialogue: “She’s a society woman, and society has strict rules! Rules, do you hear me? Rules of the Game!”

Actually, he doesn’t say that last part.

Nevertheless, the harried Octave does promise to arrange a meeting…

Octave meets with Christine and counsels her to stop being so goddamn flirtatious! Christine is from Austria, where apparently women are allowed to show physical affection to men other than their husbands, but here in Paris it is Just. Not. Done!

So, yeah: Everything is the fault of the overly friendly female! What does she expect, wearing those alluring dresses, exposing a full half-inch of ankle! Slut!

Christine accepts this advice, and agrees to invite the Aviator to a performance of La Colonoscopy (or something). “If his plane crashes, they’ll blame it on me. They’ll call me a vamp, public enemy, obstacle to progress…”

And rightly so, I might add.

This being settled, Christine rolls around on the bed with the rotund and sweaty Octave, kissing his face and proving that she has LEARNED NOTHING!

Now Octave is meeting with the Continental, who is skulking around in a silk robe, playing with his wind-up toys.

He really wants to end things with the Madame, but he’s basically a coward with slicked-back hair, so Octave agrees to take the Madame off his hands, preferably by getting her married to someone else.

One condition: the Continental has to invite the Aviator (his wife’s probable lover) to La Colorectalcancer (or whatever). Unsurprisingly, the Continental balks.

“I want to disappear down a hole,” grumbles Octave, kicking at the carpet. “…so as not to have to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. Right? Wrong? Who knows? All I know is we have to follow the Rules of the Game!”

(I added that last bit.)

The Continental agrees to the bargain, and the Aviator is invited to that play, whatever it’s called… La Colitis or something.

Now Christine, the Continental, and their servants are all arriving at the Country House.

There is much talk of rabbits and fences and poachers, which I’m assuming is, you know: symbolic.

A-HA! Correction: La Calliope (or whatever) is the name of the Country House, not a play. The whole complicated matrix of lovers has gathered for a weekend visit.

Christine has the Aviator seated at her right for dinner, and the servants are all a-twitter (in the pre-Twitter meaning of the word): “I’m all for doing as I like,” says one of the housemaids peevishly, “but etiquette is etiquette! After all, there are rules to be followed! The Rules of the Game!”

(I added that last bit.)

Christine announces to the assembled guests that she is proud to be a supporter and friend of the Aviator. Friend, got that? Nothing more. Move along, people. Nothing to see here. The Aviator is crestfallen.

There is a long scene of the servants eating dinner and talking about the folks upstairs: Who’s sleeping with who, who’s a “yid,” and so on.

“Jew or not, Chesnaye knows his potato salad,” opines the cook (I’m paraphrasing, but seriously, that is basically what he says).

They are joined by a new domestic: Marceau, who was previously caught poaching rabbits. Before they’ve finished the antipasto plate, he and Lisette (married to the Groundskeeper) are making eyes at each other.

As it turns out, a big pheasant hunt is planned for the following day, which gives everyone several more opportunities to use the word “game”.

The hunt is on! The servants drive the pheasants and rabbits out of the woods, and the rich folks blast away like idiots, killing everything that moves. After the shooting is over, someone tells a funny story about a mutual friend who accidentally shot himself in the thigh and bled to death. Hilarious!

Meanwhile, the Madame is issuing an ultimatum to the Continental: love me or I’ll tell your wife. She eventually relents, but asks him to at least give her a passionate farewell kiss, with tongue. He agrees, and at that exact moment, Christine tries out some newfangled binoculars and watches them smooch in hi-def.

The Madame prepares to leave, but Christine intervenes; she knows all about the Madame and the Continental and it’s not a big deal: “If you stay, my husband will look after you, and a little less after me, which would suit me fine right now.”

One problem: the Continental is back in love with Christine now, and merely bored with the Madame. And Christine is not interested in the Aviator, because he’s “too sincere.”

What is to be done?

That night, the rich folk put on a drunken vaudeville show, while the servants look on, smirking. Lisette is getting busy with the Poacher, Christine is in the parlor with Saint-Aubin someone-or-other, Christine’s niece is mooning over the Aviator, and the Madame is begging the Continental to run off with her. Octave is just looking for someone – anyone – to help him take off this damn bear costume!

The Aviator and Saint-Aubin engage in a little good old-fashioned fisticuffery, and in the aftermath, Christine admits that she actually has been in love with the Aviator all along, and how about we just run away together?

But no, says the Aviator, I must inform your husband (the Continental) of this unexpected turn of events. After all, we must abide by… oh, never mind.

The simmering tensions between Lisette’s husband (the Groundskeeper) and Marceau (the Poacher) finally erupt into all-out war.

During the ensuing chase through the house, Christine and the Aviator are discovered by the greasy Continental.

“If you’ll just give me five minutes to explain – ” begins the Aviator, but the Continental interrupts his halting speech with an uppercut to the jaw, and it is ON, ladies and gentlemen! The Continental has the Aviator on the ropes, but the Aviator comes back strong and now they’re in a clinch – the ref is separating them and BOOM! The Aviator delivers his signature kidney punch!

Meanwhile, Christine is fleeing out the back door in terror and disgust. She had hoped the Aviator would take her in his arms and sweep her off her feet. Instead, he kept using words like “propriety.”

Finally, the fights burn themselves out, the troublesome servants are fired, and the Continental and the Aviator sit down like gentlemen to hash out the details re: transfer of ownership.

Christine and Octave (who, come to think of it, looks like a more jovial Christopher Hitchens) go for a walk to process the evening’s many revelations. In fact, they decide that they are in love and will run off together! Yes, really!

Back in the house, Octave realizes that he has been foolish, because, well, he’s a plump and unattractive old man.

rules_renoir

So he sends the Aviator to Christine instead.

Lisette’s still-angry husband (the Groundskeeper, remember?) is lurking in the woods. Mistaking Christine for Lisette, he shoots the Aviator dead.

BLAM!

FIN!

What I Liked

Most of the actors are merely adequate, but a few made an impression: Marcel Dalio is sly and suave as Christine’s husband; Julien Carette is cartoonishly horny and displays a keen sense of physical comedy as Marceau the poacher; and Jean Renoir himself is believably jovial (and then melancholy) as Octave.

Side note: Look for photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in a small role.

I liked the awkward fisticuffs and pistol-brandishing near the end, when all of the various conflicts boil over.

Rules of the Game is generally sly and good-natured, but there is an undercurrent of menace throughout, particularly in the scenes at the country estate. I’m not entirely sure how Renoir accomplished that (apart from the obvious presence of firearms).

I liked the way that the story unfolded naturally and never seemed in a hurry to make a point or manipulate my feelings. I also liked that every character – even those behaving badly – had understandable motivations and were portrayed with compassion. There were no real heroes OR villains.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

There’s nothing particularly interesting visually about Rules of the Game, apart from a few nicely designed deep-focus shots.

Rules of the Game is a film of ideas, rather than a rich character study or pure entertainment. Renoir clearly has some things to say about class, love, the fickleness of the human heart, the many ways in which we willfully deceive ourselves and others, perhaps even war and politics. But none of those themes are clearly spelled out for us. That’s admirable, but the same lightness of touch, the same even-handedness, can make for a certain flatness of tone that may not “grab” modern viewers. Including me.

Compounding this difficulty, there is no central character with which we are to identify. “There is none,” Renoir acknowledged. “The conception I had from the beginning was of a film representing a society, a group. I wanted to depict a class.” A valid stylistic decision, of course, but it left me outside the story, an only-mildly-interested observer.

Ultimately, I found myself admiring Rules of the Game more than enjoying it or being entertained by it. As always, Your Mileage May Vary.

Should You See It?

Rules of the Game is consistently ranked by critics and film scholars in the top ten Greatest Films of All Time. While I wasn’t personally excited or moved by it, I can still recognize it as an exceedingly intelligent film with a lot on its mind. A second viewing would no doubt be rewarding.

If you enjoyed Grand Illusion or other Renoir films, with their gentle humanism, deceptively unhurried pace and lack of manipulative dramatics, you will almost certainly enjoy Rules of the Game. If you are interested in films about France on the eve of war, or examinations of European class relationships, then you may find much of interest in this week’s film.

Next: Seven Samurai

4 Comments

  1. D’oh! My own words come back to haunt me!

    Yup, I’d have to agree; Killing an animal to make a point in a work of art is something I can’t accept.

    In Lars Von Trier’s film Manderlay there is a very upsetting scene where they kill a mule. Von Trier’s justification was that the mule was old and sick and due to be euthanized that day in any case. Still, I can’t convince myself that killing anything to make a point is justifiable.

    Although, that dead shark in a tank at the Met gives me the chills every time I see it, and it’s pretty damn powerful… again, the artist didn’t kill the shark specifically for the artwork; he bought the carcass from Australian fishermen.

    Definitely some interesting ethical questions, particularly for you and I, who both eat meat.

  2. I completely agree.

    You know, I understand the point of the scenes and after reading your thoughtful and well written review/commentary (yet again spot on perfect) I see what people were getting at. For me to sort of write off the film as a French Version of “It Happened One Night” is probably not giving it the due it deserves. But…

    I can only accept so much. Much like the Dead Animal Montage showing the passage of time in “Colonel Blimp” – maybe I shouldn’t take issue with what is basically a visual tool and not necessarily a political statement (though, of course, in Rules it’s MORE of a political statement). I will say I though their interaction with a “cute squirrel” while they’re blowing the shit out of birds and rabbits was kind of humorous and telling in terms of the characters but I continue to fall back on the…but…

    A couple years ago I made a statement to a good friend of mine about the usage of overly Jewish stereotypes in the silent film “Safety Last” starring Harold Lloyd. The same overly Jewish stereotypes were on display in early WB cartoons and Leonard Maltin in his commentary said that it was very common – so common in fact that Jewish film-makers often used the same stereotype. When I mentioned this I was, of course, looking for some sort of “That’s okay, Matt” statement from my friend but my friend said, very pointedly, that “just because they did that then doesn’t make it right then or now.” Those words have stuck with me during this entire viewing process and, of course, you said them to me.

    So as much as I want to possibly discard some of the “awkwardness” of these films under my more enlightened guise of film study and understanding of the times and places and underlying meanings of structure and process and film-making – I come to the conclusion that, well, killing animals to make a point whether it’s political, spiritual, metaphorical or otherwise just ain’t right.

    Now, killing animals to put on the barbecue grill…I’m all for that (as long as I don’t have to do it, see it, or watch films of it).

  3. After reading various essays on the film, I believe that the blithely horrific hunting scene is entirely intentional, meant to highlight the callous self-obsession of the upper class. It’s a bit hard to tell, though, because there are none of the expected “cues” to spell this out for the viewer. Which I suppose is down to the subtlety of the screenplay and direction… but for modern viewers (including myself) who are viewing the film as a light comedy of manners, the scenes of rabbits writhing in their death throes seem to come out of nowhere. I agree, it was startling and sickening.

  4. I found “Rules of the Game” a hard film to categorize at first… Was it a comedy? A romance? A romantic comedy? What?? After a trip to Costco last night and glancing over some new “screwball comedy” collections (four films for $14! – and no, I didn’t buy any) – I came to my conclusion. “Rules of the Game” is a French version of a screwball comedy. Just with lots of killing involved. It has all the elements: Smart women, stupid men, witty dialogue, differences of class distinction and lots and lots of killing. Okay, American screwball comedies didn’t have a lot of killing in them – but leave it the French to screw with the genre.

    The film starts out on the “eve of WWII” (which doesn’t really mean anything in the sense of the story) with the arrival of Juneau (or something). He has flown across the Atlantic for the love of a woman (who wouldn’t?!) and is deemed a hero but, alas, his heart is broken. She wasn’t there for him when he arrived.

    Though loved by all, he is despondent. We finally meet the woman of his desire. A gal by the name of Christine. Christine, though, is happily married to a rich fellow. She is entranced by him and completely trusts him which, of course, means that he’s a scoundrel and the moment she leaves the room he’s on the phone with his mistress who knows all about Christine but couldn’t give a rat’s ass (oh those French!).

    Enter Octave. Octave is me. The quiet buffoon who is overweight, untalented, wanting to be the one everyone is in love with, plays cupid for others and is, otherwise alone, afraid and depressed.

    Seems there’s to be a hunting party at a big house out in the country. Christine’s husband owns the house (or sublets it) and there’s to be lots of guests and drink and dancing and music boxes and lots and lots of killing (oh those French!).

    Octave brings Juneau along and, of course, Christine’s husband brings along his mistress and we soon know that this isn’t going to bode well for anyone involved – especially the fat, lazy Octave.

    Once we land at the country house – the story shifts, albeit slightly. Seems a poor poacher by the name of Marceau has been poaching pheasants and rabbits and when the grounds keeper (by the name of Schumacher) pinches him for his misdeeds, Christine’s husband HIRES him instead of firing him (or putting him in jail). You see, even though Christine’s husband is having an affair and is an all around pig – he’s still got a heart of gold and a decent shot.

    Schumacher’s wife is a gal named Lisette. Lisette is Christine’s handmaiden who worships her. Before we know it, Marceau wants to play a little grab-ass with Lisette who is all for it – but her husband has issues with it (oh those French!).

    Smack dab in the middle of this story is a good 15 minutes of hunting footage that would make a PETA rep have a coronary. It ground the film to a halt and disgusted me to no end. I know all the rationalizations, etc. But if I wanted to watch people shooting birds and shooting rabbits (over and over and over again) – I’d watch a f*cking Ted Nugent “How To” film.

    Back at the house for an evening of fun – Schumacher is getting more incensed by Marceau and Lisette’s attraction to each other. Juneau is bothered by Christine being there and not really reciprocating his love for her, Christine spots her husband snuggling with his mistress and all hell breaks loose when Schumacher appears with gun in hand and finally Christine’s husband and Juneau go at it with “fisticuffs.” Lots of running, shooting, fighting, screaming (oh those French!).

    Trying to keep Christine out of the fray, she and Octave go wandering the grounds and this is where Octave admits that he is nothing but a failure as a human. He leeches onto friends, has no real job, and isn’t worth being around. In an extremely poignant scene he talks of how he wanted to be on the stage – wanted to be something. Be a CONTENDER.

    This is also when Christine admits that she truly loves HIM more than all the others. Oh if only it were like this in real life.

    Given Lisette’s jacket – she and Octave make it to the greenhouse for a little more clarification on their feelings. They will leave, tonight! They will spirit out to some obscure small town in France! All will be made complete. Oh those French!

    Watching from the bushes is Schumacher and Marceau (who have now made up) and they spy the two. Thinking that Christine is Lisette (due to the coat) – Schumacher decides to plug them both. But he spent all his bullets on Marceau. A shotgun will have to do.

    Octave, believing his ship has finally come in, rushes back to the house to get coats and hats for their clandestine voyage. When he arrives Juneau asks where Christine is and, realizing that it all must be folly after all – Octave tells Juneau that she’s in the greenhouse. Now heartbroken – Octave leaves the mansion.

    Juneau – running to his love Christine is shot and killed by Schumacher. Christine’s husband writes it off as a hunting accident and basically forgives Schumacher for killing his chief rival. FIN!

    WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE FILM:

    The acting was good. The comedy sprinkled in with the scenarios was fun and there was a sense of true enjoyment in the film.

    I loved that Octave is the “winner” in this film – though he still gets nothing in the end. Trust me – I’ve been there, pitched a tent, called it home.

    WHAT I DISLIKED ABOUT THE FILM:

    Hands down it was the hunting scenes. They just went on and on and on and on. Even when I thought they were done, Renoir would toss in another rabbit being shot to the ground.

    The interchanging stories and actors confused me for a bit until late in the film I think I finally figured out who was who.

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Though the film has a lot to recommend it, I can’t possibly do so for the sake of the many innocent animals killed in the process of making this film. It’s just…sad.

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