What Makes a French Comedy One of the Greatest Films of All Time?
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Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” was first shown in 1939 and contains lists of the best films of all time so often that its ranking can also be difficult to explain. This French film doesn’t mess up the conventions of cinematic storytelling as radically as “Citizen Kane” did in 1941, nor does it have the obsessive bait that makes “Vertigo” so endlessly accessible. While part of the Renoir film’s reputation rests on its use of depth of field and long takes, it didn’t invent either technique – and camerawork alone isn’t why it endures.
But “The Rules of the Game” is one of the best balanced films: a film about discretion that is a model for it in every way. The opening credits call it a “dramatic fantasy,” but it’s not just drama, farce, or tragedy. It’s a manners comedy (although the introductory text specifically disapproves of this description) in which manners act as a scrim. Etiquette and pomp excuse the characters for being honest with matters of the heart, and may even blind them to the darkness of WWII.
“The Rules of the Game” was made in France when Hitler threatened Europe. In this context, Renoir’s comic criticism of a “society in decline” gets a touch of fear. The chaos and death of the final act seem more than convenient ways to end the trial.
“The rules of the game”: Stream it on the Criterion Channel or Kanopy. rent or buy it from Amazon, GooglePlay or Vudu.
In describing the diagram, only the surface is scratched. Aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) made the mistake of embarking on a grand romantic gesture: he is presented in France after a solo transatlantic flight with rival Charles Lindbergh. But after landing, he finds that Christine (Nora Gregor), the married woman he completed the flight for – and whose affection he likely overestimated – is not there to greet him. He vented his displeasure to a radio reporter, and Renoir showed Christine listening to the live broadcast. She and her husband Robert (Marcel Dalio), a marquis, discuss this soon after.
Why couldn’t André calmly accept his role as a national hero, asks his friend Octave (Renoir) shortly after André drove his car into a ditch? Obviously Christine couldn’t have appeared to greet him. “She’s a society woman,” says Octave, “and society has strict rules.” How the characters obey these rules – or rather, bend them without breaking them – becomes the film’s line of passage.
Robert understands how distraught André must feel. “He had risked his life,” says Robert Christine with a kind of dashing complacency. “How could you deny him that little token of affection?” Infidelity is not exactly frowned upon in the circles of the Marquis; He has continued with Geneviève (Mila Parély) in an affair that is widely whispered about. Still, he is moved to end the alliance because Christine unexpectedly showed him loyalty.
Robert and Christine’s concern about keeping up appearances has a caption: Everyone is perceived as an outsider – Robert for his Jewish heritage, which the servants make fun of when he is out of sight, and Christine for being the daughter of one prominent Austrian conductors and remove them from French society.
Octave, who grew up next to Christine in Salzburg and says he sees her as a sister, can move seamlessly between the worlds of the film. He persuades Robert to take André on a short break in the country. Robert admits that his wife and her admirer “may as well see and talk about each other”. Clearly, the only way to break the love triangle is to bring everyone among other members of high society close and show everyone how to do the right thing.
“The terrible thing about life is that everyone has their own reasons,” Octave told Robert after asking Robert to extend the invitation. It’s the most famous line in the film, and represents an idea that The Rules of the Game is committed to as both a dramatic principle – the film delights in highlighting its characters’ flaws and small moments of hypocrisy – and aesthetic Strategy.
In previous films, Renoir had experimented with depth of field, which made the foreground and background clearly visible at the same time. The device is used in all of the “rules” to subtly emphasize how characters react to their reasons as they watch or chase one another in the ornate rooms and hallways of a sprawling estate.
The film theorist André Bazin wrote that at the time of “Rules” the director “had uncovered the secret of a form of film that made it possible to say anything without breaking the world into small fragments that would reveal the hidden meanings of people and things without disturbing their natural unity. “Sudden camera movements – like the dolly that was recorded when Christine greets a rain-soaked André when he arrives at the castle – cut into slices like the most tender shivs.
The much-imitated centerpiece of the film is a lengthy hunting sequence in which the characters are superficially embroiled in posh physical violence (hunting rabbits and poultry) as they band together to commit equally cautious acts of emotional violence among themselves. André tells Jackie, Christine’s niece, who is interested in him, that he is not interested in her. Robert breaks off the affair with Geneviève, although Christine discovers her through binoculars and confirms the Dalliance.
The upper crust characters are not the only ones involved in delusions. Christine asks her married maid Lisette (the charming Paulette Dubost) about her lovers at an early age. Lisette soon starts flirting with a literal poacher (Julien Carette) who has pissed off Lisette’s rude husband, a gamekeeper (Gaston Modot). Class satire is nothing new to Renoir – in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), a great next step if you want to explore his work further, a bookseller saves a tramp from suicide and quickly learns that no good deed goes unpunished.
But the tensions in “The Rules of the Game” – between rich and poor, between decency and libertinism, between order and pandemonium – are so refined that they are almost sui generis. The characters seem a little different each time they look at it, and there are few finals more devastating than the Marquis’ parting words as he invites his guests to hide from the cold.