Still ahead of its time.
It isn’t only that writer-director and co-star Jean Renoir pioneered crucial cinematic techniques (he used deep focus here two years before Orson Welles employed it in Citizen Kane), it’s that the film has an attitude of empathetic enlightenment that remains a rarity.
The first third of The Rules of the Game is a bit like watching dominoes fall: famed French aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) is in love with Austrian expatriate Christine (Nora Gregor). She, however, has hopes of reuniting with her husband, Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), though that may prove difficult considering he has a mistress named Genevieve (Mila Parely). Meanwhile, Christine’s longtime friend Octave (Renoir) is carrying on with her maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who happens to be married to the game warden of the Marquis’ country estate. Surely everything will be sorted out when this group – and others – converge on the estate for a weekend of aristocratic socializing?
An opening title declares that The Rules of the Game is a “dramatic fantasy.” Indeed, once the movie settles in at the chateau, it becomes increasingly surreal. While never losing their human dimensions – especially the tragicomic Octave – these figures gradually become stand-ins for the fickleness and foolishness of all of humankind. When we watch them during a rabbit hunt – a bravura sequence of fluid tracking shots and stark horror – we understand that it’s only a matter of time before they turn the guns on each other.
Which makes The Rules of the Game sound like a tragedy. It certainly ends that way – even if the characters don’t recognize it as such – yet there is so much mirth here it can be easy to overlook the movie’s sting. Things comically fall apart during a masquerade party, when affairs are revealed and revenge is sought, all while a staged revue is going on. “Put an end to this farce!” the Marquis demands of his butler, who responds: “Which one?” Amused by the silliness of this section, you may not even notice that Renoir is pulling off one of the great tricks in movie history: a tracking shot along a ballroom that captures the various couples “at play,” punctuated by Octave’s desperate searching for someone to help him out of his bear suit.
These are fools, then, but hardly condemned ones. The way Renoir is able to separate the players from their actions is a rare form of sympathy, one only matched in the films of Pedro Almodovar. Which makes the tragic ending both satirical and sympathetic. If these people – these flighty aristocrats – aren’t to blame for the awful things in life, who is? Renoir’s class critique can’t quite bring itself to blame the classes. The game itself is rigged, the movie seems to shrug. Who are we to challenge its rules?