The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) (1939)

Directed by Jean Renoir

“The awful thing about life is this, everyone has their reasons.”

I’m not really sure what kind of film this is. By turns it is satire, screwball comedy, French farce and romance. I suppose it’s true to say Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) is all of these.

It begins with the chaotic arrival of the hero André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), who has just completed a transatlantic flight similar to Lindbergh.

A crowd of admirers and media surround him anxious for his thoughts, some heroic comment.

The guests.

Instead, he looks for Christine (Nora Gregor), sees she’s absent, and descends into gloom and bitterness as he claims he made the flight for her and she has betrayed him by not appearing.

From here, we’re rapidly introduced to characters from all levels of society.

As they are introduced we’re also shown the many and complex relationships between them, including Christine and her husband Roland (Marcel Dalio), her maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), and everyone’s long time friend (particularly Christine’s), Octave (Jean Renoir).

In true comic fashion, more characters are introduced and the relationships become more convoluted and, as often happens in comedies, there are misunderstandings, misinterpretations and increasing comic confusion.

This is particularly important because one of the primary confusions is about the “rules” governing all of this. They are misunderstood by both Jurieux and Lisette’s husband, Schumaker (Gaston Modot).

Their biggest misunderstanding seems to be this – they take the relationships too seriously, and it leads to disaster.

On the hunt.

There is a frivolousness to the behavior of all the characters. And it’s ubiquitous, as we see through Renoir’s direction, with action taking place in both foreground and background. Cameras move from scene to scene (rather than cutting) as foreground and background switch places, as one storyline moves into another.

Characters are caught mid-action as doors open, or as the camera moves from hallway through archway into another room, another set of characters and another story.

The film’s satire (and comedy) is a result of this frivolousness. Every character is self-involved, including the apparent hero and heroine of the film, Octave and Christine.

While they appear less frivolous than the others, in the end they are also acting for themselves without much serious thought.

This is emphasized by, and the film’s conclusion is foreshadowed in, the hunting scene where we see the gaggle of characters shooting fleeing rabbits and birds without a second thought. It’s simply an afternoon’s amusement for them.

The killing of the animals is visually alarming, as it’s intended to be, and the somewhat more drawn out killing of the last rabbit, and it’s last few moments as it dies, is later mirrored with the shooting of Jurieux.

There’s a barbarism to the foolishness of the characters that contrasts ironically with the social manners they embrace – the “rules.”

Yet there is no heavy-handed moral tone from Renoir in his directing. Rather, he appears to love his characters, despite their faults, somewhat the way children are loved – sometimes more so because of those faults.

La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) is a great film for a variety of reasons all of which can be summed up in a single word – Renoir. It’s partly the story he chooses to tell and partly the way he chooses to tell it, both structurally and visually.

The end result is masterpiece of cinema.

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