A recurring theme in our year-long review of the cinema culture of 1939 has been the awareness of filmmakers in those days of the coming war, almost like people in that year could predict the coming change in the whole structure of the western world that would result. In the English-language movies we've looked at so far, this has largely manifested itself in nostalgia: stories looking back in time to a (nominally) simpler age, when we didn't have to deal with All These Problems like Hitler and his goons. There's a certain undeniable thread of conservatism to be found in this kind of filmmaking, which I don't bring up as a judgment, but simply as an observation.
We have to go across the Atlantic, to France, a country where the threat of war was a great deal more imminent than in the United States or even Britain, to find a filmmaker who comes upon the idea, "a great change is coming, where all the ways of the world that have been for generations shall be wiped away, and a new age that has forgotten all the traditions of the past will rise to power", and replies, "thank God, it's about time". Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game is many things indeed - for example, the most flawless motion picture ever made - but one of the most prominent things is that it's savage, satiric attack on the mores of upper class and upper-middle class culture in the time between the World Wars, and how specifically it was the pernicious effects of these same mores that all but guaranteed that the war rumblings that were really becoming hot in 1938 would finally erupt in 1939. So damning indeed was the film's social satire, its unwillingness to let the narcissistic idleness of the bourgeoisie off the hook, that the movie incited honest-to-God riots in France during its very brief official release there, while watching its running time progressively slashed in increasingly desperate attempts to salvage something commercial out of the material. The film, meant to be the debut for Renoir's independent company, instead sent Renoir scuttling to Hollywood in search of work, and was considered lost for many years, prior to a 1959 restoration of nearly all of the film's material. A strange start for a film that has since gained as sterling a reputation as anything else ever put to film.
I shall have to beg the reader's indulgence with this essay. You see, I do not have any particular critical objectivity about The Rules of the Game. I do not want any critical objectivity about it. This is a film that I adore and worship with religious fervor, one of the small handful of movies that I have never been able to exhaust; like Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai, I have not yet been able to watch this film without discovering something new. I say this only because what I'm about to embark on is nothing but raw fanboyism; the greatest fan of The Dark Knight cannot beat me for uncritical enthusiasm; nor has any person yet watched Star Wars and walked away so profoundly touched as I by this French masterpiece. For this I apologise. You deserve more, my loyal readers, than the breathless slavering to follow.
The essential narrative elements, derived from the tradition of French stage farce, are these: a pilot named André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) is in love with a titled lady, Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Gregor), wife of Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). Their past relationship is an open secret, but Christine, an expatriated Austrian, does not understand the cavalier attitude taken to marital fidelity in Paris, and has ended things with Jurieux, who stomps about like a petulant boy until his friend Octave (Renoir himself), a childhood friend of Christine's and current social acquaintence of Robert, arranges for André to come with him to a weeklong hunting retreat at La Colinière, Robert's country estate. Along for the trip are several other high society faces, including Robert's secret lover Geneviève (Mila Parély), not to mention the host of servants required to keep a country estate running. The most important for our present needs are Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Christine's fiercely devoted maid; her husband, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the estate's gamekeeper, long-separated from his wife on account of his post so far from Paris; and Schumacher's nemesis Marceau (Julien Carette), a poacher hired by Robert to help keep the rabbits down for the hunt, who instantly and idiotically takes a fancy to Lisette, who is perfectly happy to reciprocate.
Renoir does not feel hatred towards his characters, but nor does he soft-pedal their essentially heartless dalliances and casual betrayals, all of it perfectly moral and respectable as long as nobody gossips. This is the "game" of the title, and the filmmaker clearly has no use for it. While the rich enjoy their immensely shallow lifestyles, they barely even notice the roiling lives of the men and women keeping that lifestyle alive (a dichotomy that has been appropriated many times since, most recently and famously by Robert Altman's Gosford Park) - but Renoir issues no free passes to the underclass. They're just as greedy and foolish as the lovely people employing them. Not even the two people who don't like the game and don't seem to understand the rules, Jurieux and Christine, escape some measure of blame; he's a child, and she's far too willing to give up her principles to keep the game whirring along, even if she doesn't understand it. This is the danger of being an Other in a relentlessly insular society; knowing one doesn't belong fires up the desire to belong like nothing else. The more that Renoir subtly but continuously emphasises Christine's Austrianness (particularly with her accent, a nicety perhaps lost on American audiences, though anyone can notice that she alone pronounces Schumacher's name as "Shoo-mahker" while everyone else says "Shoomashayre"), the more he stresses that she is the single destablising element - which for the story, means the vehicle for tragedy, and for the thematic thrust of the film, means the tool by which the basic hypocrisies of the game are laid bare.
The chief joy of Rules of the Game, however, is not its narrative thrust, but how uncommonly well everything in the film aligns to that narrative; it is a particularly harmonious work, every element playing off of every other. Renoir does not tell us about the world of the bourgeoisie, so much as he shows it; and if we can agree that he was cinema's finest practitioner of the moving camera, so is Rules of the Game his own most glorious moment with that tool, uniting the work of four cinematographers (among them Renoir's son Alain). Under his watchful eye, La Colinière becomes maybe the most well-defined physical space in all of film history, the camera roving like a tourist in an art gallery, soaking in detail. And at the same time, the camera moves are strictly motivated by the story, revealing those parts of the setting that are most important for that moment, as plot and as emotional state. My personal favorite moment comes during the masquerade arranged in celebration of Jurieux's aviation triumph, as the camera tracks along the faces of the audience, showing the servants peeking in through doorways and showing in the furthest distance, just behind the rest, Marceau and Lisette hide from Schumacher, hunting through the crowd to catch them in an adulterous clinch. And since I've practically just now brought it up anyway: the use of deep focus in this film is absolutely exquisite. Virtually every plane of every frame is in crystal-clear focus at all points, inviting us to consider every last element of the mise en scène as sharing equal importance.
To save everyone's time, I will not speak of the acting, though it is perfect in all regards. I would briefly praise Renoir's own performance as perhaps the finest example of a director acting in all of the movies (discounting those like Keaton or Welles or several others, who are actors at least as prominently as they are directors), at least as far as the fact that he is the film's director influences the meaning of his character, the cautious voice of reason who is at the last revealed to be a fool like everyone else.
The plot structure in Rules of the Game, though, may be its most noteworthy element. It really is, almost without exception, the most structurally perfect film I know of: the first half of the movie contains almost precisely the same number of scenes as the latter, and they "mirror" each other. Specifically, the direction of conflict in the scenes switches at the midpoint, from scenes which move through chaos to resolution, over to scenes which move from placidity to chaos. Not my observation, by the way; thank you as always to Scott Curtis of Northwestern University, the man who made me the film lover I am today.
The film's structure also privileges its extraordinary, justly-famous hunt scene, which is just a bit off of dead center in the whole (and if the missing footage was ever restored, I believe it would be precisely in the dead center. The hunt! the very key to understanding the whole movie's thesis! Where there the rest of the film is taken up with stately, graceful long takes and nice framing, the hunt is rapidly-cut, shot in the uncontrollable outdoors, the camera darting about like a bird. Along it all is pure violence - a dozen animals die on camera, and while one could wonder if that adds a level of hypocrisy to Renoir's argument, it is a sad fact that this scene and thus the film could simply not have achieved the same impact with faked animal deaths made at the state of the art in 1939. What we find are legions of gamesman, soldiering through swamp and wood, beating animals out into the open, so that rich people could should them with impunity and josh each other over who's the better hunter; practically without ever taking a single step. And they certainly don't give a damn about the animals they're killing; oh, yeah, they'll be food, but it's mostly just sport. We in the audience, animal lover or no, don't tend to share that view, thanks to the merciless way the brutality is caught on film; particularly in one of the most wrenching shots in all cinema as a rabbit is hit by a bullet and tumbles on its side, flexing its paws in its death spasm and looking for all the world like it's stretching to go to sleep. Here, more than anywhere, is the callousness of the bourgeoisie, the inordinate selfishness that could blind whole countries to the crush tide of Nazism, exposed to the burning sun.
Ah, but with one exception. The most important character in the film, though few people ever seem to make this claim, is an unnamed general played by Pierre Magnier. He gets very little to do, one of several revellers wandering about and chatting throughout the movie, but there are two points where he delivers virtually the same sentiment, and one of these is given exceptional privilege of place, as the final line of the movie. That sentiment is, essentially, "Robert is a grand old man, for he always does intuitively what makes for the least socially-awkward moment, and in this he is a great heir to the history of France". The first of these occasions is right after Robert and Christine have successfully dealt with the embarassment of Jurieux; everyone knows the score, but they're so appreciative of the couple's flim-flam that they practically break into applause. It's an ironic, amusing moment in a film rich with amusing irony, although it does point out the emotional shallowness of everyone involved. But the second moment comes after a human being has died, shot in a fit of misaimed passion; the general has nothing but praise for Robert's line of bullshit designed to make all the guests feel at ease, noble about their part in remembering the dead man. That's what Old France is about, says the general, and Renoir agrees with the fact if not the sentiment. Damn Old France, with its fixation on surfaces; damn all societies more concerned with the face of things than their inner truth. World War II wasn't the last armed conflict to come about from a culture that couldn't get passed people who knew how to say the right thing, even if everyone knew that it was a lie, you know. For that reason if not for tens of others will The Rules of the Game remain absolutely essential cinema.
And still, I have not scratched the merest surface of those things that make this a masterpiece.