In “Independent Study in World Cinema,” a self-educated film nerd attempts to fill in some fairly serious gaps in his self-education. In this 12th entry in the series, we look at Jean Renoir's tragicomic critique of the upper-middle class, The Rules of the Game (1939).
"I couldn't forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…"
—from The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald1
It would be easy to miss the genius of Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game (La Régle du jeu). I know I very nearly did myself. Coming to it straight from the sublime poetic realism of the director's Grand Illusion (1937)—with its great themes, its gentle gravitas, and its quiet, touching charity towards its characters—I was unprepared for this chaotic, scathing farce. I found myself surprised—and a little miffed—that it held a higher place than Grand Illusion in the general critical esteem. (On Sight & Sound's prestigious decennial poll of the greatest movies ever made, The Rules of the Game is the only film to land in the top 10 in every decade since the poll began in 1952. On the latest poll, in 2012, it placed at #4.)
I didn't quite get it. On first viewing, I thoroughly enjoyed The Rules of the Game, but it felt like a lesser film: amusing, certainly; technically dazzling, perhaps; but messy and frivolous, just a satiric comedy of manners with thin characters, broad humor, and minor stakes.
And then I watched it again. And again. And again. And though I doubt it will ever supplant Grand Illusion in my personal affections, I also doubt I'll ever come to an end of watching The Rules of the Game, for each viewing reveals how fantastically rich and complex this film really is. What appears at first glance to be messy proves, on closer inspection, to be exquisitely structured, the apparent chaos of the comedy unfolding with a clockwork precision. The characters—who seemed such broad, satirical types on first viewing—surrender subtle and increasingly heartbreaking depths of emotional poignancy on longer acquaintance. And the "stakes"—to which Renoir never directly refers—turn out to be nothing more or less than the fate of the world.
I was reminded of a quote, widely attributed to the eighteenth century actor David Garrick: "Any fool can play tragedy; but comedy is a damned serious business." Grand Illusion is, in many ways, a tragedy of fools, but The Rules of the Game is a damned serious comedy.
I was also reminded of an observation I recently came across by director and screenwriter Paul Schrader, discussing the supposed renaissance of American cinema, the 1970s:
“There are people who talk about the American cinema of the ‘70s as some halcyon period. It was, to a degree, but not because there were any more talented filmmakers. There’s probably, in fact, more talented filmmakers today than there was in the ‘70s. What there was in the ‘70s was better audiences […]
When people take movies seriously it’s very easy to make a serious movie. When they don’t take it seriously, it’s very, very hard. We now have audiences that don’t take movies seriously so it’s hard to make a serious movie for them. It’s not that us filmmakers are letting you down, it’s you audiences are letting us down.”2
Because it occurred to me that—say what you will about France in 1939—it must have been a nation of great audiences who took movies very seriously. From the moment it premiered in Paris on July 7, 1939, the French upperclass understood The Rules of the Game perfectly. They were not deceived by its apparent lightness of tone, its deliberately farcical construction, or its studious avoidance of overt political commentary. It seems they received it exactly as Renoir intended: as a judgement, as a scathing attack on their entire way of life, and as an angry reprimand for their self-centered acquiescence to the evil that would swallow their country, and Europe, just a few months later.
It is almost impossible to imagine a film as light in tone and seemingly harmless as The Rules of the Game being taken seriously today, let alone inspiring widespread anger and condemnation. But French audiences—as we will learn—understood this movie well enough to absolutely hate it.
After Grand Illusion (1937) and La Bête Humaine (1938)—both of which had been successes—Renoir was at the height of his powers, and finally able to finance his own films. The Rules of the Game was the first movie he chose to make with his newly formed production company, and he initially envisioned it as a light-hearted change-of-pace from his previous films. “I want a change of milieu, atmosphere, and period," he told Le Figaro, in October of 1938. "I’d like to make a light-hearted, clever film that will allow me to live around rare paintings and precious crystal. I want to be intoxicated by wit and beauty.” 3
Inspired by classical French farces, particularly Alfred de Musset's play Les Caprices de Marianne (1833), Renoir's scenario would be a comedy of infidelities. "I thought of certain of my friends whose amorous intrigues seemed to be their only object in life," he later said of the genesis of this project.4 The film Renoir imagined would have no single protagonist: It would be about not a person, or even people, but about an entire class: the French haute bourgeoisie, or upper-middle class.
“One tells the same story all one’s life," Jean Renoir said in 1952. "A person has one story in mind, and then he discovers, little by little, its different aspects. For me, at any rate, it’s like that. I know that I constantly return to the same theme: the differences of class.”5
Coming immediately to The Rules of the Game after Grand Illusion, it is impossible to miss Renoir's obsession with class. But—and herein, I think, lies the explanation for how Rules was received—it is also remarkable how Renoir's view and treatment of that theme seems to have changed dramatically in the two years since Grand Illusion. Illusion is a film about the walls between classes and nationalities coming down, in order to reveal a universal humanity: It is, fundamentally, a hopeful film. The Rules of the Game, however—while playing some of the same tricks of juxtaposing and mingling the upper- and lower-classes—seems to have a far more pessimistic view of both. If Illusion's mission was to demonstrate the common decency of the classes, Rules seems determined to reveal a common indecency. The aristocratic Rauffenstein says, at the end of Illusion, that his fate now is to "carry on a futile existence." Now, in The Rules of the Game, Renoir shows us what such a futile existence looks like.
A great deal else had changed, of course, during those two years. Filming Illusion in the winter of 1936–1937, Renoir had still hoped the Second World War might be averted. (He always said that he had hoped, in fact, Grand Illusion might help avert it.) By January of 1939, however, when he began writing The Rules of the Game, any such hope had dwindled. It would be another nine months before Germany's invasion of Poland began the war officially, but Hitler's plan to conquer Europe was already underway. The Anschluss in March 1938 had annexed Austria into Nazi Germany, and in September of that year Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, the ethnically German sections of Czechoslovakia. Later that month—hoping to avoid war, and taking at face value Hitler's claim that this was "the last territorial demand I have to make in Europe"—British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier met with Hitler and Mussolini in Munich. The result was what became known as the Munich Agreement—or the Munich Appeasement—ceding to Hitler's demands.
The Munich Appeasement infuriated Renoir. Just a week after the agreement was signed, Renoir wrote a column for the left-wing paper Ce soir, making clear exactly what he thought of his countrymen catering to the will of Hitler:
“This four-party pact has a little something of 'white slave trade' about it that would be something to celebrate if it weren’t for the consequences…So, the Germans are entering the cities of the Sudetenland. Will our newspapers, as they did for Vienna, publish photographs of those choice pranks that Hitler’s men won’t fail to play on the Jews in these regions? Will we again see old men on their knees in the mud washing the sidewalks? Women forced to walk holding signs meant to mortify them? In brief, will we again be the indirect, removed witnesses of those filthy Nazi jokes that are so readily and nimbly pulled on the defeated?” 6
I'm not going to dwell on the political history here, or attempt to provide any comprehensive commentary on French society in 1939. (I'm not remotely qualified to do either.) What's important, I think, is the understanding that Renoir set out to make a light-hearted farce about infidelity among the privileged classes, while nursing tremendous fear and anger about how the powerful people in France—isolated in their privilege—were willfully blind to the threat Hitler posed. He had decided to make a film about a class, but the class in question was—as film historian Alexander Sesonske writes—"the haute bourgeoisie, the upper middle class, whose blindness and intransigence had helped to create the hopeless situation of Europe in 1939."7 Renoir himself said of Rules, "It is a war film, and yet there is no reference to the war. Beneath its seemingly innocuous appearance the story attacks the very structure of our society."8 It is a comedy about the games and parties of the upper-middle class, made with the awareness that they were—in Renoir's phrase—"dancing on a volcano."9
This, I think, explains the startling shift in tone—from good-natured optimism to satiric bitterness—between Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. And it partially explains the reaction the film received. In June 1939, the Grand Prix for Best French Film was announced—an award Renoir had largely been expected to win—and Rules wasn't even a runner-up. At the film's official premiere, in July of 1939, Paris audiences voiced their anger, scorn, and outrage in no uncertain terms. They booed, and whistled, and cried out in derision. They hurled things at the screen. One patron, supposedly, lit a newspaper on fire and threatened to burn down the theater. In the weeks to come, Renoir tried to salvage the situation by hastily (and brutally) editing the film, cutting it down from 106 minutes to 85, but it made no difference: By August, the French government had banned the film as "demoralizing."
And Renoir was, indeed, demoralized. “Out of all the movies I’ve made, it was clearly the biggest failure," he said, in 1961. "When The Rules of the Game first came out, it was a great blow. I’ve received a few blows in my life, but never like that. It was complete and resounding.”10 Later, in his memoirs, Renoir said:
"I depicted pleasant, sympathetic characters, but showed them in a society in process of disintegration…The audience recognized this. The truth is that they recognized themselves. People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses."11
During the war, the Vichy and Nazi governments continued to ban The Rules of the Game, of course. After the war, copies of the butchered 85-minute cut circulated, but the original film was feared lost in an Allied bombing, and Renoir had, by this time, fled to Hollywood. In 1956, however, two lab technicians—Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand—discovered boxes of negatives, duplicate prints, and sound mixes that had survived the bombing. With Renoir's approval, they reassembled a 106-minute version of The Rules of the Game in 1958. Minus one minor scene, Renoir says it is the film as originally intended, and he wept when he saw it. It is this film that has gone on to be acclaimed as a masterpiece and inspire generations of filmmakers. (This resurrected version of the film opens with a card acknowledging Gaborit and Durand's contribution, and a dedication to critic André Bazin, who championed The Rules of the Game even in its 85-minute cut.) The restored film's first public showing was in April 1965, in Paris, and it was an unmitigated triumph.
The booklet in the Criterion release collects a wide variety of tributes from directors who cite The Rules of the Game as the inspiration for their careers. Director Alain Resnais says his first viewing of The Rules of the Game was "the most overwhelming experience I have had in a cinema in my whole life." Paul Schrader says "If one movie can stand for all others, represent all that film can be, that film is The Rules of the Game." The great Robert Altman—on whom this ensemble film's influence could not be clearer, and who made an homage to it with Gosford Park (2001)—simply says, "The Rules of the Game taught me the rules of the game."
Perhaps the quote that gets closest to capturing my admiration for the film, however, comes from critic Amy Taubin:
"There are other films as formally complicated and graceful, as packed with ideas and emotions, as detailed and inclusive in their depiction of a social order and a historical moment. But I can think of no other film that is as unfailingly generous—to its audience, its characters, its actors, its milieu, and its medium. A social satire that is devoid of cynicism and its companion, sentimentality, and that evokes compassion rather than contempt is a rare thing. A cautionary tale that is as prophetic of today's tomorrows as of those many yesterdays ago is rarer still."
For despite his anger, despite his judgement, despite his scathing critique, The Rules of the Game never abandons the incredible empathy towards human beings that Renoir demonstrated in Grand Illusion. His startling charity towards people—even when they are selfish and wrong—is what I missed on my first viewing: It is the human heart that beats beneath even the most satirical and farcical scenes of The Rules of the Game.
It's what I've marveled at with each subsequence viewing, but of course it was there all along, in every frame. It was there, in fact, before filming even began, in the brief text of Renoir's first scenario for the film.
"In this film, everyone is sincere," Renoir writes. "There are no villains."
THE RULES OF THE GAME, ACT ONE: PARIS
Renoir claimed to be surprised by the angry reaction to The Rules of the Game, but he must have known it was a possibility: The film opens with title cards that seem designed to defuse such anger. The first announces the film as a "dramatic fantasy." A second assures viewers that "This entertainment, set on the eve of the Second World War, does not claim to be a study of manners. Its characters are purely fictitious.” (This card, we can assume, was inserted—or at least edited—after the war.) But the final card is an epigraph from Pierre Beaumarchais' play The Marriage of Figaro, one of the inspirations for the comedy Renoir was constructing. (The quotation ends with several repetitions of the phrase, "If Cupid was given wings, was it not to flitter?") Taken together, these cards seem to protest—a little too loudly?—that the film is nothing more than a light comedy of infidelity, and caution the audience not to take any of it too seriously. (Figaro, of course, was another light comedy that became controversial due to its subversive attacks on the class system of pre-revolutionary France, so Renoir knew exactly what he was doing.)
We fade in on an airfield—in almost total darkness—as a reporter pushes through a cheering crowd. She is explaining to her listeners (and to us) that we are awaiting the arrival of the pilot André Jurieux, who is about to complete a 23-hour solo flight across the Atlantic. Renoir's camera moves through the chaos of the crowd in a series of his trademark long, unbroken takes, until the plane itself lands and taxis straight towards us and the awaiting fans.
It is a bravura opening sequence, one that—in retrospect—stands out as unusual in The Rules of the Game for a number of reasons. What strikes me about it most, after having seen the rest of the film, is that is seems modern in a way that few other scenes in the movie will. Most of The Rules of the Game will feel as if it could take place in another century: People will dress in period costumes, and move through classical architecture, surrounded by baroque decorations and antique automata, playing out comedic farces that have changed little since those eighteenth and nineteenth century plays Renoir was drawing on. But this scene is set squarely in 1939: Our first shot is of an audio technician, and we follow the cable of his equipment to the radio reporter, pushing through a clamoring crowd of people in contemporary clothing, through the flashes of photography, to focus on a state-of-the-art airplane. This is modernity, technology, machinery. This is the real world, from which the bourgeois class—later—will seem so ridiculously removed.
The darkness, too, is important. (The film will begin and end in darkness.) Here, the darkness is wide-open, infinite space, contrasting with the brightly-lit corridors and rooms that will isolate the characters later, the ones they will have to navigate as they play their complicated games.
It is here—in the real world, and off the official gameboard, if you will—that we meet André (Roland Toutain). In introducing this character, Renoir seems to be playing with our expectations for the film to have a clear protagonist, for no one could get a bigger welcome than André gets. He emerges triumphantly from the cockpit of his plane, after completing his grand adventure, to greet an adoring crowd of reporters and dignitaries. Surely, we think, this is our romantic hero? But our expectations are immediately skewed: Shy and deferential, André has no interest in being a hero. The only person he rushes forward to greet is his friend Octave (Jean Renoir himself), and that is only to ask if "she" is here. Told "she" didn't come, his face falls like he's a heartbroken schoolboy.
Renoir had made three of his last four movies—including Grand Illusion—with Jean Gabin, and he had originally wanted Gabin to play this role. The fact that Gabin was unavailable is almost certainly to the benefit of The Rules of the Game, however, for Gabin was far too substantial a screen presence to play this sad-sack, lovelorn character. Without even trying, Gabin would have made André a hero—however tragic a one—but Toutain embodies the character's childishness and innocence. We realize, almost instantly, that André is a fool, not a knight, as we watch him give a pathetic speech to the radio reporter. He is miserable, he tells the world: He did all this for a woman, and she didn't even bother to show up.
I should pause here to acknowledge, again, that there is a great deal of subtext in The Rules of the Game that might have been clearer to a French audience in 1939, but which is obscure or invisible to us—or to me, at least—in 2020. As several critics have observed,12 André arrives at Le Bourget Airport, which was both the site of Charles Lindbergh's landing in 1927, and—more recently, and more poignantly—the site where Daladier was welcomed back from Munich in triumph for supposedly having "avoided" a war with Germany. So both of these events would have been fresh in the memories of viewers in 1939, and Renoir would have meant to invoke them by staging André's introduction this way.
We have already discussed Renoir's disdain for the Munich Appeasement, and he was disgusted with the crowds who gathered at Le Bourget to congratulate Daladier on it. ("I was a little less proud to be French this week," Renoir wrote in his Ce soir column, "when I saw the crowds on the streets of Paris welcome our president back from Munich.")13 Meanwhile, Lindbergh—a staunch anti-semite, and a vocal fan of Hitler—was currently using his fame to inflame the isolationist movement in America. Much later in the film, Renoir will give himself a cynical speech about the value of "heroes" of this sort. (“In the air, they’re terrific. But when they come back to earth, they’re weak, poor, and helpless. Clumsy as children.”) But I think the irony infuses this opening scene even if we are not so fluent in historical nuance.
As André is petulantly telling the world about the faithless woman who has broken his heart, Renoir employs the first of several brilliant transitions in the film by carrying us over the airwaves directly to the woman in question. We cut to the back of a radio, and then pan up over it to discover Christine de la Cheyniest (Nora Gregor), being waited on by her personal maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost). Renoir holds the shot while they listen to the radio—and while the reporter tries to make excuses for André's outburst—and eventually Christine walks directly towards the camera and shuts the radio off.
The change of setting, mood, and milieu could hardly be more extreme. From the black, high-contrast void of André's arrival scene, we are in a light and brightly lit room of overly-decorated opulence, and—as I suggested earlier—almost seemingly in another century. Renoir will cut back briefly to the dark, modern chaos of the airfield, but only to contrast it with this softer, calmer, more timeless world that seems removed from it in every possible way. As we have somehow already begun to suspect, André does not belong in this world at all—a point reiterated by Christine's shutting-off of the radio's intrusive noise. André, emerging from the sky, landing in a sea of darkness, raw and emotional, had no context, but here we meet a woman who is all context, betraying no emotion and defined entirely by her surroundings.
Christine and Lisette do not mention André directly, though both are certainly aware of the impropriety bomb he has just detonated in their world. They talk instead—lightly, and a little disdainfully—about love in general, and it here that we begin to learn the titular rules of the game. Christine asks her maid about her husband, and Lisette explains that he is no trouble whatsoever: He's in the country, after all, and she's in Paris. So does she have lovers? "That's a big word," Lisette says, and goes on to explain that men are all the same: She gives them what she feels like giving them, but whatever they get they just want more. What about friendship, Christine asks? "With a man?" Lisette scoffs. "When pigs have wings!"14
It is in this scene that Renoir begins to explicitly build the structure of his film, for The Rules of the Game is laid out along parallel romantic parallelograms. He had borrowed the four basic character types from Musset's Les Caprices de Marianne—faithful spouse, cheating spouse, despairing lover, and interceding friend—but doubled them, so he could play out the farcical situation simultaneously between the upper- and lower-class, the storylines intersecting and commenting upon each other. So here we have the first of many doubling shots in the film, as Christine—talking about her own situation indirectly, while probing Lisette about hers—looks in her mirror and appears to see her maid reflected back.
What will not become clear until later, however, is that the roles are not so obviously assigned, and actually have a tendency to shift. In this scene we suspect that these two women are two sides of the same coin, because we suspect Christine has been unfaithful with André. (Certainly, he has now led the world to believe she has been.) But in fact she has not: Christine still believes in marital fidelity, making her counterpart in the parallel love-rhombi Lisette's husband, not Lisette herself. So, at this moment in the film, the shot in the mirror is more prophetic than descriptive: Lisette, with her casual attitude towards romantic morality, is what Christine may become by the end of the film.
For reasons we'll discuss further, Christine's character is, for me, by far the most challenging in The Rules of the Game. But I think part of the challenge for the modern, non-French-speaking viewer, is that we are likely to see her, initially—as I did, on first viewing—as the perfect embodiment of the French upper-class. Reading subtitles, we may not hear her accent, for example. (Born in Austria, Gregor actually spoke very little French.) We may not understand, until it is revealed later in the film through conversation, that Christine—like the actress who plays her—has only been in this world for a few years.
Gregor—the wife of a former Austrian vice-chancellor—had fled with her husband to France after the Anschluss, and was essentially living in exile. In his original scenario, Renoir had imagine this character as a more typical upper-class French wife, but he completely re-conceived the role for Gregor. So, like Gregor, Christine is an Austrian, new to French high-society. As we will discover, she is far more innocent than she appears: She herself is still learning the rules of the game, which her maid understands far better.
So only later do we understand that Christine's light-hearted interrogation of Lisette—her questions about lovers, her questions about friendship with men—was a legitimate attempt to understand the confusing morality of the people (especially the men) around her. She was trying to understand how André—whom she really did think of as a friend—could have misunderstood their relationship so badly (and so publicly). And—whether she knew it yet or not—she was trying to understand her unfaithful husband, Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio).
Like Gregor, Dalio—the son of Romanian-Jewish immigrants—was an odd choice to represent the silly decadence of the French bourgeoisie. (Seeing Gregor and Dalio in these roles is apparently part of what infuriated certain right-leaning, anti-semitic elements of the French audience.) But Dalio is a fantastic actor, bringing a sad, complex humanity to what might have been a cartoonish role.
And Renoir deliberately draws on audience associations of the actor with the character he played in Grand Illusion, the Jewish officer Rosenthal. Later in the film, the servants—as snobbish and anti-semitic as their masters, if not more so—debate Robert's ancestry: They call him a "Yid," and one of them says that "his grandfather was a Rosenthal." More than just a sly wink, the line poignantly suggests that Robert could literally be descended from the wealthy, new-money family of Dalio's character in Renoir's earlier film. That makes The Rules of the Game a sort of sequel to Grand Illusion: a spiritual one, if not a literal one, but by any measure not a happy one. This, Renoir seems to be saying, is what all that democratizing lowering of the walls between classes in Grand Illusion achieved: a Rosenthal can become a Boëldieu or a Rauffenstein. All those "Maréchals and Rosenthals" did not change French society: French society changed the Maréchals and Rosenthals. (Honestly, it makes me a little sad: The Rules of the Game might have been titled Grand Disillusion.)
Like Christine, Robert shuts off the radio report about André at the beginning of this scene. "Men are so naive," Robert says, casually dismissing André's outburst, and relieving Christine of her anxiety by seeming to accept that André simply mistook their friendship for love. And indeed, throughout The Rules of the Game, men—not exclusively, but in particular—are almost unfailingly naive and childish. Robert uses his vast fortune to entertain himself with toys: antique automata (which he collects and dotes over obsessively), and partying people (who seem, frankly, to be of a similar—if lesser—interest to him). Reminding us again of Boëldieu in Grand Illusion—who said he strictly observed all proprieties, even with his own wife and mother—Robert is stiff and formal with his wife, using the formal pronoun vous rather than the informal tu. The combined effect—for me, anyway—is of a little boy pretending to be a worldly, sophisticated man, by closely following the rules of the game as centuries of men like Boëldieu established them. It is André's sort of raw, presumptuous, reckless expression of emotion that violates the rules by which this society functions.
Robert's tacit, diplomatic assurance to Christine that he knows there is nothing to André's accusation has inspired her to make an overt declaration in return. "I trust you completely," she tells him, and this sudden directness—she is not French, remember—rattles him. Because, of course, Robert is cheating on her, with a woman named Geneviéve (Mila Parély). Feeling what we can only assume is shame, Robert immediately calls Geneviéve, to arrange a meeting where he can break things off with her.
(As we've already seen, mirrors will play a significant role throughout The Rules of the Game. Here, feeling guilty, Robert is framed in a mirror as he calls his mistress, but his self-awareness is half-hearted and incomplete: Typical of his entire character, he never really looks himself in the face.)
Robert's weakness and indecision will be consistent throughout the movie. (Later, he will baffle his groundskeeper by explaining that he wants to keep the rabbits out of his estate, but he doesn't want the man to put any fences up. He demands that his life be a certain way, but he is not willing to take any action or make any real decisions.) His meeting with Geneviéve goes much the same way: His resolve to do the right thing crumbles the moment Geneviéve suggests that ending the affair will make her unhappy. ("It's a good thing you're weak," she says.) She, in fact, suggests that Christine is the problem: "A Parisian woman would understand," she says, assuring him that he, not Christine, understands the way the game is supposed to be played. (Geneviéve has already announced her own philosophy, quoting the eighteenth century French writer Nicolas Chamfort: "Love as it exists in society is merely the mingling of two fantasies and the contact of two skins.")
So far we have discussed three of the four sides of the romantic parallelogram Renoir had borrowed from Musset: the faithful spouse (Christine), the unfaithful spouse (Robert), and the despairing lover (André). Now let's talk about the fourth, the interceding friend Octave, played by Renoir himself.
Like many of Renoir's films, The Rules of the Game was a family affair: Jean's little brother Claude was a production manager; Jean's son Alain was a cameraman; his wife Dido was the script girl; and his longtime mistress, Marguerite, was an editor. Renoir had originally cast his older brother Pierre in the role of Octave, but Pierre had a stage career in Paris: When Renoir decided to shoot the majority of The Rules of the Game on location in Sologne, 150 miles away, Pierre was unwilling to spend that much time away from the city. Renoir then offered the role to Michel Simon—who had starred in Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), and is familiar to my readers from L'Atalante (1934)—but Simon was tied up with other commitments. Renoir looked for another actor, but, as he later admitted, "I really didn't look very hard. I was just waiting for the moment when Pierre would say, 'Why don't you play the role yourself, Jean?' He didn't have to ask me twice."15 (Renoir had played small parts in his own films before, and he had always harbored dreams of being an actor.)
This is another case of a fortuitous accident of casting, for it is inconceivable to imagine The Rules of the Game without Renoir's Octave. ("I often have fortunate accidents like that," Renoir said, about his filmmaking in general.16) For though The Rules of the Game is a film without a central protagonist, Octave is absolutely the film's melancholy heart, and the pivotal character in the story's structure. (I mean this word literally: Octave is the figure around whom the complicated spokes of Renoir's tale revolve.)
In Grand Illusion we discussed the power of characters who have learned to navigate the permeable walls that divide classes, and Octave is one of those characters here. Upper-class by birth, but poor, Octave is a professional moocher. ("If I didn’t have a few tolerant friends, I’d starve to death," he says later.) But his own peculiar status has made him a free-floating figure in these rigidly defined worlds, a sort of well-intentioned fixer and trickster, a mercurial double-agent in the wars between the classes. (In love with Christine, he is having—if not an actual affair—at least a healthy flirtation with her maid, Lisette.) Belonging nowhere, he is at home everywhere; the consummate outsider, he is inside any room he wants to be in; totally alone in the world, he is everyone's best friend. He understands the rules of the game as well as anyone—and he has his part to play in enforcing them—but somehow they never seem to apply to him. (Watch how he canoodles intimately with Christine—his childhood friend—while chastising her in the same breath for being too familiar with people like André. "You throw yourself around people's necks like a 12-year-old girl," he admonishes her, a moment before pulling her down on the bed to enjoy her affectionate caresses.)
Octave is easily the most likable character in the film, and—owing largely to Renoir's sensitive performance (and giving himself the best lines)—he seems the most clear-headed and fully developed, too. And I think, because of this, we are tempted, for most of the film, to read him as the most decent, the voice of moral authority in the film, the secret arbiter of ethical relations and true love. This is a view we'll have cause to reconsider by the end of the film, however. (Here, he calls Christine "an angel, a dangerous angel." A few moments later, Robert unknowingly echoes this observation back at Octave, calling him "a poet, a dangerous poet." Both descriptions are accurate.)
It is tempting to read a lot of Jean Renoir in Octave, and to read in his dialogue the authorial voice of the film. I won't presume to go that far, and I suspect—even if it is true—that Octave represents Renoir's judgement upon himself as much as the other characters represent his judgement upon anyone else in French society. But Octave gets the film's most famous line, and I think that line is pure Renoir: "The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons." Octave—like Renoir—is a person who can empathize with everyone, the one who can see, and understand, and even relate to the motivations of all his fellow human beings.
(In this one six-minute sequence in the film, Octave talks separately with André, Lisette, Christine, and Robert, and essentially says the same thing to all of them: Trust me, I'll take care of everything. Nearly all of their goals are mutually exclusive, of course, and Octave can't possibly arrange things so that they each get what they want. But, while he is speaking to them, he not only sees their perspective but actually seems to think they're right.)
How Octave approaches his friendships seems, to me, to be exactly how Renoir approaches his characters: Empathize with all of them, see their motives from their point of view, and enjoy their flawed humanity for its own sake, as something worthwhile and beautiful. And do this, knowing all the while the truths that make it "awful:" understanding is not the same thing as excusing; empathizing is not the same thing as forgiving; and there is absolutely no way—no matter how hard you try—to ensure that everyone gets a happy ending.
ACT TWO: THE HUNT
I haven't read Les Caprices de Marianne, the Alfred de Musset play that inspired the plot of The Rules of the Game. Based on synopses I could find—of the play, and of Henri Sauguet's 1954 comic opera based on it—Renoir roughly followed the major beats of the story in his "upper-class" plotline, including the role of Octave (the only character whose name Renoir kept from the play), the moral wavering of the formerly faithful spouse, and the murder of the would-be lover at the end of the story.
Being somewhat less than fluent in 19th century French theater, I didn't have those associations, however: What the second and third acts of The Rules of the Game reminded me of was Shakespeare's comedies. The gathering at a country estate, the party and masquerade, the mistaken identities, the tangled romantic machinations, and the comedic counterpoint of upper- and lower-class characters, all evoke for me something like Much Ado About Nothing.
The comparison is superficial, but potentially useful: In Shakespeare's comedies—from Much Ado, to As You Like It, to A Midsummer Night's Dream—a move from the city to the country usually represents a lowering of the divisions between classes, and a relaxing of the strict rules of propriety that govern society. The country is a place of chaos, misbehavior, improper dalliances, and a more direct expression of natural lusts and desires than life in court allows. It is a place where tensions reach a boiling point and are released, messily, in ways that ultimate restore (or even improve) the equilibrium of the society in question. It is a place where a queen may end up coupling with an ass-headed weaver, but—at the end of the play—everyone will return to their proper places in the social order.
In the first half of Act Two all of the characters—including André, thanks to Octave's meddling—relocate to Robert's country estate Coliniere. And it is here we meet the remaining members of our lower-class love rhombus. First we encounter Schumacher (Gaston Modot), Robert's groundskeeper and Lisette's long-distance husband. Schumacher, we quickly learn, is obsessed with protecting the estate from intrusion by poachers, and this thin but effective metaphor becomes clearer throughout the movie: The only wholly faithful spouse in the movie—married to one of the film's more prolific philanderers—Schumacher is fighting a losing war against "poaching"—that is, against infidelity. (Furthering the argument that The Rules of the Game is at least a spiritual sequel to Grand Illusion, it's interesting to note that, in the earlier film, Modot played the engineer who worked for the Cadaster, meaning his job was to draw property lines. Renoir, at the very least, saw each of his actors a certain way and slotted them consistently into his own thematic obsessions.)
This makes Schumacher—in theory, at least—one of the few unimpugnable moral authorities in the film, at least on the subject of marriage. But he is also one of the film's few truly dislikable characters. He is humorless, bitter about his estrangement from Lisette ("I feel like a widower"), and rather brutal. (Almost the first thing we see him do is release a cat from a cage, and then shoot it as it runs off.) So, if we are tempted to think Renoir's issue with the haute bourgeoisie is the rampant infidelity itself, Renoir deliberately complicates that reading by making the one true moralist in the movie a bullying, unsympathetic bore.
Much more fun is the puckish Marceau, played by another Grand Illusion veteran, Julien Carette. Marceau—funny, playful, and a poacher in both the literal and the metaphoric senses—is Schumacher's opposite in nearly every way, and (once he meets Lisette) he will assume the "lover" role in this under-class affair. He is also, interestingly, the only member of the true lower class we meet in The Rules of the Game. A sometime furniture repairer—"But times are tough, even in my line"—he lives on stolen rabbits and claims to have an elderly mother to support. Marceau aspires to the status of the professional servants like Schumacher and Lisette. ("I always dreamed of being a domestic," he says. "I've always dreamed of wearing a uniform.")
His wish is granted by Robert, who takes an instant shine to the charming Marceau, and so unexpectedly assumes the "interceding friend" role in the under-class quartet. Upon reflection, it is surprising construction: It would make sense for Octave—who, as we said, is comfortable with both classes—to be the point at which the two parallel plot-lines meet. But Renoir makes the more interesting choice: Marceau and Robert turn out to be oddly kindred spirits—their scenes together illuminating both characters—and their shared, worldly immorality makes them bond against the dull Schumacher as a common foil. (Marceau and Octave—the film's two clowns—will not even really meet until the very end of the movie, after they have unknowingly conspired to bring about the story's tragic ending.)
If I tried to trace all the ways Renoir's complicated plot construction works with clockwork precision, I'd never finish this piece. But here's a quick, simple example: André and Marceau are the two "lovers" in the story, the would-be poachers of other men's wives. And Robert—who is unwilling to make any real decisions, unwilling to draw any real lines, and who seems to live only for comfort and amusement—reacts to them each in exactly the same way: Instead of doing the logical thing and banishing them—and despite the warnings of others—he invites them both into the house. "I don't want any fencing, nor do I want any rabbits," Robert tells Schumacher. "I'm against barriers and walls," he told Octave earlier, when Octave was talking about how everyone has their reasons. Renoir—neither a moralist nor a nationalist, as far as I can tell—nonetheless seems to suggest through Robert that tolerance and empathy—or appeasement, if you will—can go too far. There are times when you need to make a hard choice, or even make an enemy. But Robert—exemplifying the comfortable moral decay of his decadent class—has forgotten how to do that.
As we watch this film, and attempt to figure out the titular "rules of the game," one of the thing that strikes us repeatedly is how appearance supersedes reality. There are, actually, very few secrets within this world—everyone knows who loves whom, who is sleeping with whom, etc.—but there is a necessity to maintain the illusion of propriety. This is one of the rules André broke when he ranted on the radio about his love for Christine, so Christine's first order of business at Coliniére is to put that scandalous genie back in its bottle.
As everyone gathers to welcome the "hero" André, the gossip is flying around the room. ("So, did they or didn't they?" one man whispers, and his companion assures him that they did.) And so Christine welcomes André with an impromptu speech. "Dear friends, I must confess something regarding my relationship with André Jurieux," she begins—and then goes on to say how they did indeed spent long hours together before his flight, "hours marked by the rare sign of friendship." It's a delicate defusing of the scandal—without admitting anything—that translates the entire narrative into one that everyone can at least pretend to believe. Robert will thank her for it later, and an older guest—the General (Pierre Magnier) will remark to Octave that it proves "our little Christine has class, and that's a rare thing nowadays." Christine—an outsider, and not a Parisian woman—is beginning to learn the rules of the game.
Because I spent a fair amount of time in my piece on Grand Illusion discussing Renoir's cinematography, I've deliberately avoided doing so here. But I would be remiss if I didn't pause here to at least mention the exquisite camerawork that is—to be sure—one of the elements that makes The Rules of the Game such an influential masterpiece. The most famous examples come in Renoir's shooting of scenes down the long hallways of Coliniére, as when all the gathered guests are retiring to their rooms for the evening. Two years later Orson Welles would impress the world with his use of deep-focus cinematography on Citizen Kane, but here Renoir demonstrates that he had not only already mastered it, but could use it to greater effect. In long, unbroken takes, Renoir lets the conversations and interactions of a dozen characters—guests and servants alike—play out simultaneously in foreground, middle-ground, background. His camera draws our eye to one person going down the hallway, pauses for a conversation, picks up another coming towards us to draw our eye back, and hands our attention off again. It all appears to be improvised chaos, but when you imagine how difficult it must have been to film you realize it is, in fact, a dazzling and precisely choreographed ballet.
(I am reminded of a scene in Milos Foreman's Amadeus (1984), in which Mozart describes his plans for—coincidence?—The Marriage of Figaro. He explains how, in the finale of Act Two, he will feature eight actors, singing overlapping lines, for a full 20 minutes. In real life, Mozart says, if more than one person speaks at the same time, it's just noise. But with music, you can achieve a perfect harmony. Renoir, in The Rules of the Game, pushes the limitations of film, and proves that—in the hands of a master—the camera can produce the same kind of harmonious, intoxicating music out of apparent chaos.)
And we have not even gotten to the really impressive set pieces of the film, the first of which is the hunt that ends the second act and effectively divides the film in two.
I will be honest: On first viewing, I was enjoying The Rules of the Game in a slightly languid, disinterested way until I got to the hunt—at which point I sat bolt upright and took fascinated notice. (I believe, in fact, I made some perspicacious comment like "Holy Shit!" out loud.) In terms of plot development, very little happens in the hunt until the very end. (The only real development for the story is that Christine accidentally discovers the affair between her husband and Geneviéve.) But in terms of theme, and mood, and overall purpose, this incredible set piece is the indispensable center of The Rules of the Game.
"It is a war film, and yet there is no reference to the war," Renoir said, and we must take him at face value. But the hunt is more horrific than any war movie could be, and far more condemnatory of the class Renoir was examining.
All of the upper class characters gather on the grounds, making their usual small talk, carrying their shotguns. And then Robert blows a trumpet, and they all take their places behind the blinds. The camera tracks the servants, dressed in white—"the beaters"—moving through the woods, striking sticks against trees to flush out the game. The rhythmic clacking of their sticks fills the air. We see rabbits and pheasants, terrified, moving like fleeing refugees ahead of them, helplessly driven towards destruction. From a director known for long takes, the cuts here come faster and faster, building towards a suspenseful frenzy. We watch the rabbits scurry—and then the first shot rings out, and the rabbit we are watching stops running and drops dying to the ground. For more than a full minute we listen to a cacophony of gunshots ringing out, and we watch birds fall broken from the sky, and rabbits jerk to a stop in their strides. We watch at least 20 animals shot on-screen, those 20 standing in for the countless dozens—hundreds?—slaughtered in the hunt. On the last of these—a rabbit—the camera lingers for a full five or six seconds, as the sound of the gunshot fades, and the trumpet sounds again, and the animal twitches, and curls, and dies.
It is absolutely monstrous, and it is meant to monstrous. Renoir did not actually shoot the deaths of the animals himself: running behind schedule, he was needed elsewhere, and entrusted the animal scenes to his assistant director André Zwoboda and cameraman Jacques Lemare. According to his son Alain, however, Renoir would not have shot these scenes under any circumstances, or even watched them being shot, because "the sight of the death of animals was unbearable to him."17
It is hard to even articulate what this sequence means. From a plot perspective, it can certainly be read as foreshadowing for the end of the movie. ("They'll take us for rabbits!" Octave warns André at the beginning of the hunt. At the end of the movie, we see André, shot, curl up and die like that final rabbit. Marceau—whose first appearance with a dead rabbit can also be seen as foreshadowing his role in André's death—tells Octave how André fell "like an animal in the hunt.")
And if we are reading larger symbolism into the sequence, it obviously seems to warn of the horrors of the Second World War, the imminent suffering of innocents towards which France was—in Renoir's view—willfully turning a blind eye. Years later, Renoir claimed he did not consciously put in such signifiers:
"Ah! No. I thought of it then, but in an extremely vague way. I didn't tell myself, 'It's absolutely necessary to express this or that in this film because we are going to have a war.' But, knowing that we were going to have a war, in being absolutely convinced of it, my work was impregnated with it, despite myself."18
And this is how this sequence reads, for me: It doesn't obviously translate into foreshadowing or symbolism, but evokes an emotional reaction that is born from a general anxiety about humanity, one greater than any specific narrative purpose or social commentary. It is about cruelty. It is about reckless, careless, wanton destruction as sport and entertainment. It is about the powerful not caring about the helpless, except as they can be used. (After the hunt, the General tells a "funny" story about what happened to his friend George, who accidentally shot the servant handing him his gun. "He died in 20 minutes!" the General says, laughing raucously, and everyone joins in. Their sympathy—to the extent they have any—is for "poor George," and not for the nameless servant killed.) This incredible sequence, then, is about the sort of carelessness—and heartlessness—that can apply to situations personal and political, to relations between lovers, and classes, and nations. So it is about the war, and it is about reckless love affairs, and it is about the relations between master and servant. Because it is, fundamentally, about society excusing, normalizing, even celebrating, a total absence of empathy. This—on my limited, two-film acquaintance—seems to be Jean Renoir's real obsession.
ACT THREE: DANSE MACABRE
As we enter the third and final act of The Rules of the Game—in which all of these characters and storylines collide in a complexly choreographed party scene that is funny, frenzied, and ultimately tragic—I am realizing that I can't possibly do justice to all of Renoir's moves and machinations here. So let me abandon the pretense, and step back, and discuss some of the characters and storylines more generally.
To begin, I want to circle back and explore one of the central figures in this comedy of errors: Christine. I said earlier that I find Christine to be by far the most difficult character in the film to understand, and her motivations only get increasingly murky as we get closer to the story's end, and her affections seem to shift—on a whim—between at least four different men. Some of this is down to Nora Gregor, who I do not find to be the most dynamic of actresses. (She is perfectly adequate, but—in this all-star cast—she seems easily overshadowed by every scene-partner she has.) But part of the fault—if it is a fault—lies with Renoir's screenplay, which feels like it views Christine always from a distance: She is a confusing object of affection, but rarely a focus of Renoir's sensitive, nuanced attention in the way that characters like Robert and Octave are.
But she has a key scene, I think, the night before the hunt. This is during the hallway sequence, and it is one of the conversations Renoir pulls away from his elaborate crowd choreography to focus upon. First Christine speaks with Robert, who rather formally thanks her for handling the André thing so delicately, helping him to save face. Then she has a brief conversation with Lisette, to whom—as we have already seen—she looks for instruction on the rules of the game, to discover how a "Parisian woman" thinks. Out of nowhere, she asks Lisette, "Don't you want children?" Of course, Lisette says, but they demand so much time. "That's the beauty of it," Christine says, wistfully. "It's your sole preoccupation." And Lisette, disinterested in this topic, immediately begins chattering about Marceau, her next frivolous love affair.
The next time we seen Christine it is at the hunt, just before the shooting starts. She asks her niece Jackie (Anne Mayen) if she enjoys hunting, and Jackie says that she does. Jackie poses the question back to Christine, and Christine just shrugs, and scoffs, and says nothing. It is a tiny, passing moment, but it speaks worlds about Christine: Her expression suggests this is just one more tedious, meaningless, joyless set of motions she must go through. She doesn't have children to preoccupy her. She has only a formal, passionless relationship with a husband who is obsessed with toys. She has nothing real in her life, just this endless, empty set of games.
And so after the hunt—and after she has caught a glimpse of Robert and Geneviéve kissing—something changes in Christine, I think. She has been a faithful wife, and she thought she at least had a faithful husband. Now that she knows otherwise, I think she starts looking for a way to find happiness within the peculiar constraints and conventions of this system. She will start playing the game the way the French men and women do. (After all, they seem much happier than she does, so perhaps there's something to it?) Her actions in the third act—which have such devastating consequences—seem to stem from her sudden, somewhat flailing attempt to get something real out of this futile existence.
She begins with confronting the quintessential "Parisian woman," Geneviéve, and meeting her on her own terms. The morning after the hunt Christine goes to Geneviéve, and offers to "speak frankly," and pretends that she has always known about Robert's affair. "Am I troublesome wife?" she asks her husband's mistress. "Have I ever tried to hinder your relationship with my husband?" Geneviéve is shocked, but Christine plays the game brilliantly, laughing about Robert's ways like she's talking to a girlfriend, all the while feeling Geneviéve out for how far the relationship has gone. At the end of the conversation, Christine basically concedes Robert to Geneviéve, saying that having less of Robert's attention will suit her quite well.
At the masquerade, Christine chooses a guest, Monsieur Saint-Aubin (Pierre Nay)—seemingly at random—to have an affair with. She has plenty of other suitors to choose from—André, Robert, and Octave are all searching for her frantically during the party—but for her first foray into the world of infidelity she seems to deliberately select someone with whom she has no emotional attachment. And why not? Sex is just a game, just the coming together of two skins: That's what these bourgeois French have taught her.
The situation–in fact, each of the situations—comes to a head during the film's second incredible set-piece, the Danse Macabre scene. After several lighter entertainments, the party goes dark, and a dancing skeleton takes the stage, surrounded by ghosts, while Saint-Saëns' creepy dance of death tinkles out on a player piano. The absolute darkness of the performance space, with just the glow of the white costumes, reminds us of the film's opening scenes at Le Bourget, the contextless figures out in the real modern world. But now the darkness is inside the house, bringing real world consequences into this formerly frivolous environment, and reminding us—Masque of the Red Death-style—that these silly people are partying while a shadow of evil is currently engulfing Europe. It is here we feel, most strongly, Renoir's conviction that the haute bourgeoisie were dancing on the edge of a volcano.
It's also another example of Renoir's dazzling blocking, as his camera moves around the room, past various doorways, and brings the drama to a nearly wordless crescendo. We find Shumacher first, on one end of the room, looking for his wife, who is making out a little further down with Marceau. We follow Schumacher's path around the room, through the crowds, in and out of doorways. As he passes the middle of the room, we find Christine—drunk—and Saint-Aubin, giggling and flirting. Past them Schumacher reaches the doorway where Marceau and Lisette are entwined, and they pull away from each other when he approaches. Just past them, we see André, alone and miserable, watching Christine and Saint-Aubin: We follow his gaze now, back to them, as they rise together and sneak away. We follow them out of the ballroom, as Octave—still in his bear costume from the previous performance—chases after them. Christine pushes him away, and runs off with Saint-Aubin, and as Octave retreats miserably he is joined in the hallway by all the major characters: Robert and Geneviéve, André, and Marceau, followed quickly by Lisette and Schumacher. ("In the years before the Steadicam," director Wim Wenders has said of Renoir, "you wonder how a film camera could possibly have been so weightless.")19
There are more fantastic scenes packed into the back half of The Rules of the Game than I can possibly discuss at length, and I am guiltily aware of storylines and sequences to which I'm giving short shrift. The lower-class love story, for example, is a delight, and in many ways more engaging and fun than its upper-class counterpart. (Paulette Dubost and Julien Carette nearly run away with the movie.) But it is simpler: Renoir mostly plays it for comic relief, and—perhaps displaying a bit of class-snobbery himself—does not explore any of their motivations very deeply. The lower-class characters are more primal, spontaneous, driven by simple lusts and simple solutions. In this way, their purpose seems to be to provide a comedic counterpoint to the overly-complicated, phonily intellectual contortions of the upperclass. It doesn't need to as complicated as you're making it, they seem to argue, by example. If you want to sleep with a man, you should just sleep with him. If someone tries to steal your wife, you should just shoot him. All your rules and fancy airs are just getting in the way of a very fun and natural process.
In this respect, one of the most interesting elements is Robert's friendship with Marceau. The two men could hardly be more different: Robert is a rich man who painstakingly maintains all the proprieties, and Marceau is a poor man who completely disregards every law and commandment. Robert is pure order, and Marceau is pure chaos, and this, perhaps, explains the former's fondness for the latter. (Robert even runs interference for Marceau when Schumacher is trying to kill him: He seems to be rooting for Marceau to cuckold the grumpy gamekeeper.) For they are both the same, deep down: They are amoral sensualists who want to sleep with all the women, and they want to go through life without having to face any consequences for their actions. It is to Marceau that Robert confesses that he wishes he could be an "Arab," because what he'd really like is a harem. "They always have a favorite, but they don’t kick the others out and hurt their feelings," Robert says. "I don’t want to hurt anyone, especially not a woman." Keeping a harem takes money, Marceau points out, but Robert knows wealth provides no escape. "Even with money, I still hurt everybody.” Robert has money, but he does not have Marceau's freedom: He is fenced in by ridiculous rules of propriety, and the necessity of maintaining appearances, and the illusion of morality, if not its reality. Only with his beloved automata—which he can buy and own outright, and which have no feelings to hurt—can he find a sad simulacrum of the happiness he seeks.
What we realize in the last half of The Rules of the Game is how much the upper-class people—particularly Robert and Christine—are trapped by walls they have built themselves, cut off from anything real, and worthwhile, and human. They briefly, and desperately, look for ways out, but they can't find them, or can't take them. Christine had snuck off with Saint-Aubin to have a quick affair, but she is interrupted by André, who slaps the other man in the face. Saint-Aubin takes this as a challenge for a formal duel—translating the offense into the recognized customs of this society—but André wants no part of such formality: Instead, they just have a good old fashioned fist-fight. André is breaking the rules again: rejecting propriety, acting emotionally, and behaving, in short, the way the lower-classes behave.
And it is only in this that I find any explanation for the sudden declaration of love Christine makes, as soon as she and André are alone again. In this moment, I think, Christine sees in André a way out: Not just a way out of her loveless marriage, but a way to cut through the stifling, maddening rules of the game and arrive at something real. He is a man, after all, who violates propriety and bares his heart on the radio. He is a man who ignores custom and brawls in the middle of a party. I do not, for one moment, believe Christine loves him, but I think she know that love is supposed to be something messier, and simpler, and more honest than the rigid rules of her society allows. André, at least, is honest—to a fault—and at this precise moment, he looks like her path to something genuine.
But then André—who has just been offered everything he has ever wanted—screws it up. Christine (as she'll explain to Octave later) wants André to kiss her, to ravish her, to take her away from all of this. Instead, André, disastrously, retreats into propriety, the one thing she had wanted to escape. He says he has to talk to Robert: He can't just run off with the wife of his host without explanation. "But since we're in love, what difference can it make?" she asks him. "Even so, Christine, there are still rules," he says—and with that sentence, with that word, he loses her forever. More rules. More games. More sublimating real emotion to formality and propriety. Arching her eyebrow, and pursing her lips, Christine makes the same bored expression she wore when asked if she liked hunting.
And so she goes off to find someone else. It happens, ironically, while André and Robert are ironing her fate out between them. Here, again, both men briefly give way to real, genuine emotion: Robert—quite sensibly—punches the man who has come to steal his wife, and they, too, have a fight, which rages simultaneously with Schumacher's similarly motivated attempt to shoot Marceau. All the rules are suspended, all the masks are lowered, all the honest emotions are coming out.
But it's only a temporary lapse. When a gun shot rings out, almost hitting him, Robert comes to his senses and remembers who he is, forcing all his primal emotions back into the constraints of custom. The party is over, the rules are once more in place. He fires Schumacher, for creating a dangerous scene, and then he fires Marceau, because—and this is a brilliant moment of bourgeois hypocrisy—it would be immoral to let Marceau stay with Lisette after Schumacher is gone. When he returns to André, he is all civility, polished manners, appeasement. He concedes the contest for Christine to André: "I'm glad it's with someone from our set!" he says cheerily.
(Robert's conversation reveals his sad distance from—and perhaps envy of—the more honest passions of the working class. "Do you know what our athletic display reminded me of?" he asks André, laughing. "I sometimes read articles in the paper, about some Italian roadworker trying to seduce a Polish laborer's wife. It ends in a stabbing. I never believed such things happen, but they do!" We sense that this might be the most exciting thing he's ever been involved in, a story he will tell his fellow upper-class friends for years.)
Meanwhile, Christine—quite understandably—has given up on them both, and run straight into the arms of someone who loves her more simply and directly: Octave.
Octave is the last major character we need to talk about in The Rules of the Game. He is the only one who genuinely moves me, and he may be—we could argue about this, I suppose—the only one who really changes in the film.
I think for the moment Octave begins to change, we perhaps have to go back to the Danse Macabre scene. Already, we have seen Octave running around after his musical numbers, begging someone—anyone—to help him take his bear costume off. But everyone is too busy: André is looking for Christine; Robert and Geneviéve are running around together; Christine is running off to be alone with Saint-Aubin; Lisette and Schumacher are embroiled in their drama, et cetera. Octave circles the rooms, encountering the same characters over and over again, asking for their help, and they all refuse each time. "You're a nice fellow, but…now is not the time," Saint-Aubin says, the second time, and Christine actually hides from Octave, leaving him angry and sulky. "Let me just get this off, then they'll see!" he fumes.
On first viewing, this is just a seemingly small bit of humorous background business. But with subsequent viewings, I started to find it increasingly poignant and incredibly sad. Octave has tried throughout the film to help everyone with their problems, but now no one has a single moment to help him. He is everyone's friend, but he is wandering around by himself in a ridiculous bear costume while they all pair off with each other. He is the odd-man out, and not seen as an equal with them. He is a clown, and he is utterly alone, and I think he realizes that here.
Geneviéve finally helps him get the costume off—in a rather violent bit of slapstick—but she does so while she's having an argument with Robert. "If she still loved you, she wouldn't be with Aubin," she tells Robert, and we see Octave register the news that Christine might actually be off somewhere having a cheap affair with that dolt. He loves her—he has made that clear—and it must be a further blow to his pride that he is no part of her love triangles/rectangles/pentangles. He's just the clown, just the cuddly and comic performing bear.
The reality of his life crashes down on him outside, in the small courtyard in the back of the house. We have heard earlier about how Octave grew up with Christine, studying music under her father, a great conductor whom Octave loved and idolized. Now, Octave is cheering Christine up by talking about her father conducting: walking out to the orchestra, basking in the respect of the musicians and the adoration of the audience. Octave walks out to the top of the steps, recreating her father's motions, bowing to an invisible audience, and he starts to mime conducting. "And just like in a dream…" he says, and raises his hands—and then he stops. He seems to crumple in on himself, and sits on the steps, and when Christine tries to comfort him he tells her to leave him alone.
Later, we get his clear-eyed assessment of his life, perhaps the only self-awareness anyone really demonstrates in the film. "It's just unpleasant to be reminded what a failure I am," he tells Christine. "A leech!" He had dreamed of being a great man, when he was young, but it never happened. "And so I feed myself a lot of nonsense, imagine that it did happen," he says. "Back there on the porch, I almost thought it had happened. But after that comes the fall." Nothing great ever happened to him: He's just a moocher, just a professional guest, just a comical bear who dances for his keep.
And this, I think—ironically—is the moment when he wins Christine's affections, because Christine craves honesty and openness above all. And no one talks like this in this world. No one ever admits the pointlessness and futility of it all. No one ever admits the loneliness. No one ever admits that they're all failures. Christine has no children, and a loveless sham of a marriage. Robert has his silly collection of toys, which he shows off as though collecting them is some kind of accomplishment. Even André—the big national hero—only performed a meaningless stunt (that someone else had done first anyway), as a futile gesture to impress a woman who didn't want him. None of them has accomplished more than Octave, for these are not people who do anything real. They just have money.
"It's you I love," she tells Octave, finally, in the greenhouse. Does she? We have every reason to be skeptical, because Octave is her fourth man today, after Robert, Saint-Aubin, and André. And yet I tend to think there is a genuineness to their relationship that we have seen nowhere else in The Rules of the Game: a comfort, an intimacy, an honesty and understanding. They actually see each other, these two, and they deal in real emotions when they talk, and they know what is important and what's just a game. We cannot know, of course, if they would have been happy together, long-term, as lovers. But I do think that, if there is a possibility of happiness anywhere in the film, it is here, in this moment, when Octave promises to do what André had refused to do: kiss her, and love her, and take her the hell away from this place, regardless of propriety and appearances.
The morality of The Rules of the Game is incredibly tricky. How we are to judge these characters is incredibly complicated, and the film refuses to do it for us. (“My father never passed judgement on other people,” Alain Renoir once said.)20 Renoir cuts straight from the greenhouse back to André and Robert, talking about Octave. "You can trust him," Robert says. "He’s a decent fellow…I believe in little, but I may start believing in friendship." Yes, André agrees: "Octave is someone special." The intended irony is clear: At this same moment, Octave is preparing to betray them both, by stealing away the woman they love.
But is Octave wrong? Does Renoir intend us to think Octave is wrong? I don't know, but I don't think so, because I think the love—in this moment, at least—is real, and that makes it precious in this superficial, artificial world. Renoir's condemnation of the bourgeoisie seems to be that nothing they do or say is real: It is all games, all appearances and posturing, with no moral courage, no real decisions, and no real consequences. So Octave's mistake is not betraying the rules of the game, but adhering to them, out of cowardice and a misguided notion of nobility, at the very last minute. Just as he and Christine are on the brink of escape from this phony world, he surrenders to propriety.
This, to me, is the final tragedy of The Rules of the Game. Not André's death, which is as silly and pointless as André's love, as silly and pointless as André himself. André's "accidental" death is just a side-effect of the real mistake, which is that Octave lets Lisette talk him out of running off with Christine. "This is wrong," she says. "When it's just for fun, it doesn't matter. But for living together, the young are for the young, and the old are for the old." (This distinction in her mind is interesting: You can do whatever you want with people, as long as it doesn't mean anything to you. But for true love—for real life—there are rules.) What will they do without money, she asks? And then she hits Octave with the line that stops him cold: "Madame won't be happy with you." And—in the final moment of literal self-reflection—Octave meets his own eyes in the mirror past Lisette. And without his saying a word, we know it all comes back to him: His feelings of being a failure, his lifetime of being a leech, his awareness of himself as nothing more than a clown. And at this exact moment André, the "hero," comes in, and Octave decides—nobly, perhaps, but wrongly—that André is a better bet to make Christine happy. "She's waiting for you," he lies to the younger man, and gives him his own coat so that he can take Christine away.
The rest, as they say, is farce. While all this has been happening, Schumacher and Marceau have bonded. (It is one of Renoir's incredible celebrations of empathy that Marceau—whom Schumacher has just tried to shoot—feels sorry for the heartbroken gamekeeper and tries to help him.) The two men have been lying in wait for Octave, because they erroneously thought he was seducing Lisette in the greenhouse. (Christine was wearing Lisette's cape.) And now, when André appears wearing Octave's coat, Schumacher—the defender of the estate—shoots him dead.
The film began when André disrupted the social order with his indiscreet approach to love. But love—the sort of guileless, innocent, romantic love that André believed in—never had a chance in this world. Now—as with most of the classical comedies—all the chaos and confusion of The Rules of the Game has just reinforced and restored that social order in the end. Robert—standing where Octave failed to conduct his imaginary orchestra—gives a little speech folding all of these events into a publicly-acceptable narrative that no one will really believe. It was a regrettable accident, and nothing more, he explains. ("He has class, and that's become rare," the old general says of Robert's lies, repeating what he said about Christine when she gave her face-saving little speech earlier.) Jackie—who loved André—starts to fall apart, but Lisette and Christine flank her, and take her by the arms, and teach her that the rules of the game require that she shows no genuine emotions. "An educated young lady like you has to put on a brave face," Lisette says. "People are watching," Christine—a stone-faced Parisian woman at last—agrees.
Only Octave—whose lack of courage and confidence caused this unfortunate "accident," and squandered perhaps his (and Christine's) only chance at happiness—seems altered by the events. He can't stay here: He's had enough of the game, and he is tired of being a dancing bear. He will go to Paris, he tells Marceau, and try to make it on his own for once in his life. There is some small sliver of hope, I think, for Octave.
Otherwise, nothing will change. No one will change. Christine will stay with Robert, and Lisette will stay with Christine. Marceau will go back to poaching. Even Schumacher—the murderer—has been rehired, Robert seeming to forget that he ever fired him. Tomorrow, Robert announces to his guests, they will "do their duty" by André Jurieux, meaning they all will have another meaningless party to look forward to, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The rest of the gathered guests—the rest of the haute bourgeoisie—file back inside the walls of the house, to resume their futile existences, as flat and insubstantial as shadows.
NEXT ON THE SYLLABUS
Though I am now sorely tempted to abandon my proposed syllabus, in favor of watching everything Jean Renoir ever made, the show—and cinematic history—must go on. So I'll be turning my attention next time from the French poetic realism of Renoir to the Italian neorealism of Roberto Rossellini, as I watch the WWII drama Rome, Open City (1945).
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner, 1925), p. 120.
- Paul Schrader, interviewed by Jeremy Brock, BAFTA Screenwriter’s Lecture Series, London, November 26, 2018. Transcript available here.
- In Le Figaro, October 13, 1938. Quoted in Pascal Merigeau, Jean Renoir: A Biography. Running Press. Kindle Edition, loc. 7484.
- Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films. (New York: Atheneum, 1974), 169.
- Jacques Doniol-Volcroze, “Entretien avec Jean Renoir,” Cahíers du Cinema, no. 8 (Paris, 1952), pp. 49–50. Quoted in Charles Williams Brooks, “Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game,” French Historical Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 264–283.
- Ce soir, October 7, 1938. Quoted in Merigeau.
- Alexander Sesonske, “Everyone has their Reasons,” essay for The Criterion Collection release of The Rules of the Game.
- Renoir, My Life and My Films, 171.
- Quoted in Sesonske, ibid.
- In his 1961 introduction to the film, available here and included on The Criterion release.
- Renoir, My Life and My Films, 172.
- Among others, Sesonske discusses it in his excellent commentary track for the Criterion release.
- Renoir, Ce soir, ibid.
- I should note that, by necessity, all dialogue references in this piece are to the English-language translation on the Criterion release, which (like all translations) sometimes alters the exact readings to better convey the meaning. Here, for example, Lisette actually says “That’s asking for moonlight in midday.” I rather like the change—since it evokes the “winged” image of André (the pig?) descending from the sky—but it’s the translator’s line, not Renoir’s.
- Quoted in Alexander Sesonke, Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924–1939 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 381.
- Quoted in Sesonke, ibid, 285.
- Merigeau, ibid, loc. 7854.
- Jean Renoir, Cahiers du Cinéma, vol. 6, no. 34 (May 1954), 6. Quoted in Sesonske, Jean Renoir: The French Films, ibid, 383.
- Quoted in Roger Ebert’s review of The Rules of the Game, available on rogerebert.com here.
- Quoted in Célia Bertin, Jean Renoir: A Life in Pictures (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 273–274.
2 thoughts on “THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939)”
Brilliant dissection of a brilliant film. It helped me so much understand Octave's motivation at the end. It was wonderful to have this film so carefully mined for its hidden jewels.
Michael! After seeing your post we rented the film on Prime, and our experience more or less followed your first viewing: a frothy farce until the shock of the hunt scene, the shock of the danse macabre, steadily increasing admiration for the interwoven structure and generous complexity of character, the chaos of pairings, followed by an eagerness to read your essay. I learned much, especially about Christine (whom you said you found vague and then delineated wonderfully; your "full recovery" from your lit major still has a ways to go). The long hall scenes captivated me. You compared it to a ballet, but it reminded me more of another great French playwright, Georges Feydeau, whose farces feature frenzied characters shooting on and off stage in depth in just that manner (Keystone Kops also?). The distancing effect was most powerful here, I felt. With Octave I also thought of Rossini's, not Mozart's, Figaro, the factotum who triumphs as poor, sad, hilarious Octave does not. Your insight that his relationships with the other characters follows Renoir's own was, for me, the jewel in your critical crown: distance and generosity somehow pulled off.
Just one trivial "fact" quibble: the Anschluss was in March of 1938, so if Christine fled Vienna after that she can't have been in France for "a few years."
A terrific piece: thank you.