First, it's immediately apparent why film scholars and serious cineastes love the film. Technically, it's brilliant. "The Rules of the Game" is famous for many sequences making use of a deep focus technique to create a very large depth of field, so you can see the action happening in the foreground and background at the same time. Renoir composes his shots to take advantage of this, especially in the famous country estate scenes where he'll place a crowd of people along a hallway or in a series of connected rooms, so you can spot several different things happening at once. And if that weren't enough, the camera is also frequently moving, first looking down one busy hallway and then another, or following characters as they travel from one place to the next, or just peeking through an open door at figures barely visible in the distance. This all builds to a series of spectacular chase sequences where the characters dash through multiple planes of action, crossing from background to foreground and back again, disappearing and reappearing as they move through different rooms, creating more and more ruckus the longer they go.
And then there's the story. I think that one of the reasons I had such a hard time with the film originally was that I found it very difficult to keep track of all the characters, their relationships, and their motivations. The story follows a small party of the French upper class during a weekend at a country estate, hosted by the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) and his wife Christine (Nora Gregor). Both of them are having affairs, and some of their lovers have other lovers, and there's also a the contentious love triangle playing out among a trio of the servants. It was hard to follow who was involved with who, as Christine's mercurial affections would switch among at least three different lovers, and a few of the minor characters like the niece are barely introduced before they get in on the action. It didn't help that the first print I saw wasn't in the best shape, making it difficult to distinguish the male leads from each other.
This time I fared better, and could pay more attention to how the keen satire was mixed with broader humor. Though it follows the form of a typical love farce, "The Rules of the Game" offers quite a bit of social commentary, revealing the little intrigues and hypocrisies of the players, both high class and low. Two in particular help the audience penetrate their world. One is aviator hero André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), madly in love with Christine, who suffers for being an outsider and not understanding how love is conducted in high society. And then there is their lovable, jolly friend Octave, played with considerable charm by Jean Renoir himself, who gamely tries to shepherd the love affair along in spite of his own feelings. In separate chats with the Marquis and Marquise, he succeeds in getting Jurieux invited along for the weekend by cleverly appealing to their sense of etiquette and duty. Octave also has some of the best slapstick scenes, getting himself stuck in a bear costume for much of the last act.
However, the most enjoyable characters are the servants. They harbor their own prejudices and enforce their own hierarchies among themselves, mirroring their employers. Gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) is appalled that Marceau (Julien Carette), a poacher he's been chasing, is hired on as the newest household servant. And when Marceau starts making eyes at Schumacher's estranged wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost), resentment becomes aggression, which becomes murderous rage, which leads right into those wonderful chase scenes. The servants are allowed to be more emotional, more passionate, and more expressive. They suffer more consequences for their transgressions while the elites do not. However, as the tragic ending reveals, being low in the hierarchy of established society trumps not being part of the hierarchy at all.
I missed so much in my first viewings of "The Rules of the Game," and thought the story a far lighter and more flippant piece of work than it actually was. This time I could see the disillusionment, the cynicism, and all the darker implications. This time I could see why the film caused such an uproar in France upon its original release, and why it still strikes such a nerve with viewers. I'm not ready to declare it one of the all-time greats, but I suspect there's more in "The Rules of the Game" that I still haven't discovered, that may take another viewing or two to ferret out.
What I've Seen - Jean Renoir
Night at the Crossroads (1932)
Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)
A Day in the Country (1936)
The Lower Depths (1936)
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)
Grand Illusion (1937)
The Human Beast (1938)
The Rules of the Game (1939)
The River (1951)
The Golden Coach (1953)
French Cancan (1954)