In the film Independent Study in World Cinema an autodidactic nerd tries to close some rather large holes in his self-study. In this 12. entry in the series we look at Jean Renoir’s tragicomic review Règles du jeu (1939).
I could not forgive him or love him, but I could see that what he did was perfectly justified for him. It was all very sloppy and confusing. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they broke things and creatures and then fell back on their money or their carelessness or what held them together and allowed other people to clean up the mess they had made….
-of The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It would be easy to overlook the genius of Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, The Rule of the Game. I know, I almost did it myself. Straight from the sublime poetic realism of director Grand Illusion (1937) – with his great themes, his gentle seriousness and his calm and moving compassion for his characters – I was not prepared for this chaotic and angry farce. I was surprised – and a little annoyed – that it was higher than Grand Illusion in the general perception of the critics. (In Sight & Sound’s prestigious ten-year research into the best films, The Rules of the Game is the only film in the top 10 since the research began in 1952. In the last survey, in 2012, it was ranked number 4).
I don’t quite understand. At first glance, I really liked Rules of the Game, but the film wasn’t that funny: funny, of course; technically dazzling, maybe; but messy and frivolous, just a satirical comedy of manners with subtle characters, broad humour and inconsistent stakes.
And then I looked at him again. And again. And again. And while I doubt if it will ever replace Grand Illusion in my personal feelings, I also doubt if I will ever finish watching The Rules of the Game, because every time I watch it, I see how fantastically rich and complex it is. What seems chaotic at first glance turns out to be a wonderfully structured, seemingly chaotic comedy that unfolds with precision. Characters that seem broad and satirical at first glance reveal subtle and increasingly heartbreaking depths of emotion in a long-lasting encounter. And the stakes, to which Renoir never directly refers, turn out to be no more and no less than the fate of the world.
It reminds me of a quote widely attributed to 18th century actor David Garrick: Any idiot can portray the tragedy, but acting is a damn serious business. Grand Illusion is in many ways a tragedy of madmen, but Rules of the Game is a damn serious comedy.
It also reminds me of a remark I heard recently from director and screenwriter Paul Schroeder, who talked about the supposed renaissance of American cinema in the seventies:
Some people talk about American cinema in the 70’s as a kind of halcyon period. To a certain extent, but not because there were other talented filmmakers. There are probably more talented filmmakers today than in the 1970s. What was in the 1970s was a better audience….
When people take movies seriously, it’s very easy to make a serious movie. If they don’t take it seriously, it’s very, very difficult. Now we have an audience that doesn’t take movies seriously, so it’s hard to make a serious film for them. It’s not that we filmmakers let you down, it’s that you, the audience, let us down.
Because it occurred to me that – tell me what you would say about France in 1939 – it must have been a nation of great viewers who took the film very seriously. As soon as the movie comes out on the 7th. The French upper class was founded in Paris in July 1939 and understood the rules of the game perfectly. They were not fooled by the apparent lightness of the tone, the deliberately grotesque construction or the cautious avoidance of open political commentary. They seem to have understood it exactly as Renoir intended it to be: as a punishment, as a devastating attack on their whole way of life, and as a furious reprimand of their self-centered resignation to the evil that would engulf their country and Europe a few months later.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that a film as light and seemingly innocent as Rules of the Game would be taken seriously these days, let alone the anger and condemnation it evokes. But the French audience – we’re already learning – understood the film so well that they absolutely hated it.
Jean Renoir in 1962 during the filming of Le Caporal insaisissable.
After La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Bête Humaine (1938), both successful, Renoir was at the top of his game and was finally able to finance his own films. Rules of the Game is the first film he made with his new production company, and he initially saw it as a small change in the pace of his previous films. I want a change of scenery, atmosphere and weather, he said to Le Figaro in October 1938. I would like to make a light and intelligent film that allows me to live close to rare paintings and precious crystals. I want to get drunk on spirit and beauty.
Inspired by classic French farces, notably Musset’s Alfred de Musset’s Le Caprice de Marianne (1833), Renoir’s screenplay was a comedy for non-believers. I thought of some of my friends whose love intrigues seemed to be their only purpose in life, he later revealed to me the origins of this project. The film Renoir had in mind would have no main character: We are not talking about an individual or even a people, but about a whole class: the French high bourgeoisie or the upper middle class.
The same story will be told his whole life, Jean Renoir said in 1952. Someone has a story in his head and then gradually discovers its various aspects. For me anyway. I know I keep coming back to the same thing: Differences in class.
Renoir’s obsession with class is impossible to ignore if he ventures into the rules of the game immediately after La Grande Illusion. But – and here I think is the explanation for the genesis of the rules – it is also remarkable how Renoir’s vision and attitude towards the subject seems to have changed drastically in the two years since The Great Illusion. Illusion is a film about how the walls between classes and nationalities fell and how a universal humanity came into being: It’s actually a film of hope. However, the rules of the game, when they use the same tricks of comparison and confusion between the upper and lower classes, seem to have a much more pessimistic view of both. If the mission of Illusion was to show the general decency of the classes, the rules seem to reveal a general obscenity. The aristocrat Raufenstein says at the end of Illusion that his fate now is to continue a useless existence. In The Rules of the Game, Renoir now shows us what such a meaningless existence looks like.
Of course, a lot has changed in those two years. By running Illusion in the winter of 1936-1937, Renoir still hoped that the Second World War could be avoided. (He always said he hoped that the Great Illusion would help prevent this). However, in January 1939, when he started writing the rules of the game, all that hope disappeared. It would take another nine months before the German invasion of Poland officially began, but Hitler’s plan to conquer Europe was already underway. The Anschluss annexed Austria to Nazi Germany in March 1938, and in September of that year Hitler demanded the annexation of the Sudetenland, an ethnic German part of Czechoslovakia. In the same month the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier met Hitler and Mussolini in Munich to prevent a war and in the light of Hitler’s statement that this was the last territorial claim in Europe. The result was the so-called Munich Agreement or the Munich Concession to Hitler’s demands.
The Munich Reconciliation made Renoir furious. A week after the signing of the agreement, Renoir wrote a column in the left-wing newspaper Ce soir in which he clearly expressed what he thought of his compatriots acting on Hitler’s orders:
There’s something in this quadripartite agreement about the white slave trade that would be reason for a party if it weren’t for the consequences…. That’s how the Germans invaded the Sudeten cities. Will our newspapers, as in Vienna, publish pictures of these regions that the Hitlerians will not fail to play the Jews in these regions? Will we see old men kneeling in the mud again to wash the sidewalks? Do women have to walk around with plates to kill them? In short, will we once again be the indirect and distant witnesses of those dirty Nazi jokes that so easily and skilfully overthrow the defeated?
I will not dwell here on political history or try to give an exhaustive commentary on French society in 1939. I think it is important to understand that Renoir wanted to make a slight farce about the infidelity of the privileged classes, while at the same time stirring up enormous fear and anger about how the powerful in France, isolated in their privilege, were deliberately blind to the threat posed by Hitler. He decided to make a film about the class, but the class in question, as film historian Alexander Sesonske writes, is the upper middle class, the upper middle class, whose blindness and intransigence contributed to the impasse in Europe in 1939. Renoir himself talked about Rules, it’s a film about the war, and yet it doesn’t talk about the war. Behind its seemingly innocent exterior, the story attacks the very fabric of our society. It’s a comedy about the games and parties of the upper middle class, made knowing that they dance on a volcano, according to Renoir’s formula.
I think that explains the striking change in tone, from good-natured optimism to satirical bitterness, between The Great Illusion and The Rules of the Game. And it partly explains the reaction the film got. In June 1938, the Grand Prix for the best French film was announced, a prize that was expected to be won by Renoir, and the Rules did not even reach second place. At the official premiere of the film in July 1939, the Parisian public expressed their anger, contempt and indignation in very clear terms. They were honking and whistling and shouting ridiculously. They threw things at the screen. A visitor would have set fire to a newspaper and threatened to burn down the theatre. In the weeks that follow, Renoir tries to save the situation by hastily (and cruelly) cutting the film from 106 minutes to 85, but it doesn’t make any difference: In August, the French government banned the film as demoralizing.
And Renoir was indeed demoralized. Of all the films I’ve made, this is the biggest failure, he said in 1961. When the rules of the game came out, it was a big catch. I’ve taken a few hits in my life, but I’ve never done this before. It was complete and audible. Later, in his memoirs, Renoir said…
I have portrayed nice and sympathetic characters, but I showed them in a disintegrating society…. The audience understood that. The truth is, they recognized each other. People who commit suicide don’t bother to do it in front of witnesses.
During the war, of course, the rules of the game were still forbidden by the Vichy and Nazi governments. Copies of the 85-minute editing circulated after the war, but it was feared that the original film would be lost in the Allied bombings and Renoir had already fled to Hollywood by then. But in 1956 two lab technicians, Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand, discovered boxes of negatives, copies of prints and sound mixes that had survived the bombardment. With Renoir’s approval, they rebuilt a 106-minute version of the piece in 1958. Except for one insignificant scene, Renoir says that the film is the way it was meant to be and that he cried when he saw it. It is this film that is praised as a masterpiece and that has inspired generations of filmmakers. (This resurrected version of the film opens with credits that acknowledge the contributions of Gaborit and Durand, and a dedication to the critic André Bazin, who defended the rules of the game even in his 85-minute editing). The first public screening of the restored film took place in Paris in April 1965 and was an undisputed triumph.
The Criterion release booklet brings together various tributes from directors who cite The Rules of the Game as inspiration for their careers. Director Alain René says his first screening of Rules of the Game was the most moving film experience of my life. Paul Schroeder says that if one film can mean all the others, can represent everything a film can be, then that film is the rule of the game. The great Robert Altman, to whom the impact of a film on this whole could not have been clearer and who paid tribute to it with Gosford Park (2001), simply says The rules of the game taught me the rules of the game.
But perhaps the quote that comes closest to my admiration for the film is from the critic Amy Towbin:
There are other films that are formally complex and elegant, full of ideas and emotions, equally detailed and describing the social order and the historical moment. But I can’t think of another film that is so invariably generated by its audience, its characters, its actors, its medium. Social satire without cynicism and its companion, sentimentality that evokes pity rather than contempt, is rare. An edifying story as prophetic as it was years ago is still rare.
For despite his anger, despite his judgment, despite his destructive criticism, the rules of the game never reveal the incredible empathy for man that Renoir shows in Grand Illusion. His incredible charity towards people, even if they are selfish and dishonest, is something I missed on my first visit: It is the human heart that beats even among the satirical and farcical scenes of the play.
It’s something that surprised me when I looked at every next step, but of course it was all the way through, in every frame. It was even in Renoir’s short text of the film’s first screenplay before shooting began.
In this film, everyone is sincere, Renoir writes. There are no bad guys.
THE RULES OF THE GAME, TRADE FIRST: PARIS
Renoir pretended to be surprised by the furious reaction to the rules of the game, but he should have known it was possible: The film starts with title cards that seem to exorcise such anger. The first states that the film is a dramatic fantasy. The second assures viewers that this entertainment, which takes place on the eve of the Second World War, does not pretend to be a study of morality. His characters are purely fictional. (It can be assumed that this card was inserted after the war or at least changed). But the last map is an epigraph of Pierre Beaumarchais’ play Les Noces de Figaro, one of the works that inspired the comedy Renoir. (The quote ends with a few repetitions of the sentence If Cupid got wings, shouldn’t he be flirting?) Taken together, these cards seem to protest too strongly that the film is nothing more than a light comedy of infidelity, warning viewers not to take anything too seriously. (Figaro, of course, was another light comedy made controversial by subversive attacks on the class system of pre-revolutionary France, so Renoir knew exactly what he was doing).
We stopped at the airport – almost unbelieving – when the journalist made his way through the cheering crowd. She explains to her audience (and to us) that we are waiting for the arrival of pilot André Jurieu, who is about to make a 23 hour solo flight over the Atlantic Ocean. Renoir’s camera moves through the chaos of the crowd in a series of his typically long and uninterrupted shots until the plane itself lands and a taxi calls us and the waiting fans immediately.
This is an opening sequence of bravery which, in retrospect, is unusual for the rules of the game for several reasons. What strikes me the most after seeing the rest of the film is that it looks modern, like few other scenes in the film. Most rules of the game will make it look like it could happen in the next century: The people will be dressed in historical costumes and moving in neoclassical architecture, surrounded by baroque decorations and old automatons, playing comic jokes that originated from the plays of the 18th and 19th centuries. Renoir’s work, from which he drew inspiration at the beginning of the 20th century, has hardly changed. But this scene takes place in 1939, at right angles: The first shot shows a sound engineer, and we follow the cable of his equipment to a radio reporter as he sneaks through a noisy crowd, through flashes of photographs, to concentrate on a modern airplane. It’s modernity, technology, engineering. This is the real world from which the bourgeoisie – later on – will seem so ridiculous.
Darkness is also important. (The film will begin and end in darkness.) Here the darkness is an open and endless space that contrasts with the corridors and lit rooms that will later isolate the characters as they navigate their complex games.
Here, in the real world, and outside the official sign if you like, we meet André (Roland Tutan). With the introduction of this character, Renoir seems to play with our expectation that the film will have a clear protagonist, because no one can get a higher reception than André. He solemnly emerges from the cockpit of his plane after completing his great adventure, greeting a crowd of adoring journalists and dignitaries. We probably think he’s our romantic hero… But our expectations are immediately distorted: Shy and respectful, Andre has no interest in being a hero. The only person he rushes to greet is his friend Octavian (Jean Renoir himself), and it’s only to ask him if she’s there. He said he wasn’t coming, his face fell like a broken schoolboy.
Renoir has made three of his last four films, including Grand Illusion, with Jean Gabin and originally wanted the latter to get the role. The fact that Gabin was unavailable certainly benefits the rules of the game, but the presence on screen was too essential for Gabin to play this sad and loving character. Without trying, Gabin would have made André a hero, tragic though it may be, but Tutan embodies the character’s childishness and innocence. We realize almost immediately that André is an idiot, not a knight, by watching him give a pathetic speech in front of a radio journalist. If he’s unhappy, he’ll tell the whole world: He did all this for a woman, and she didn’t even bother to show up.
I must stop here to acknowledge once again that there are many subtexts in the rules of the game that could have been more understandable for a French audience in 1939, but that are unclear or invisible to us – or to me – at least in 2020. As some critics note, André arrives at Le Bourget airport, which was both the landing place of Charles Lindbergh in 1927 and, more recently, the place of Daladier’s triumphant return from Munich, because he would have avoided the war with Germany. Thus, these two events would have remained fresh in the memory of the public in 1939 and Renoir would have wanted to refer to them by stage-managing André’s performance.
We’ve already talked about Renoir’s contempt for dinner in Munich and it was disgusting that the crowd gathered in Le Bourget to congratulate Daladier. (I was a little less proud to be French this week, Renoir wrote in his column tonight, when he saw the crowd on the streets of Paris cheering our president on his return from Munich). Meanwhile, Lindbergh – a fervent anti-Semite and Hitler fan – used his fame to fuel an isolationist movement in America. Much later in the film, Renoir will give a cynical speech about the value of these heroes. But when they come back to Earth, they are weak, poor and helpless. Clumsy as children). But I think irony is omnipresent in this opening scene, even though we are not so familiar with the historical nuances.
While André talks melodramatically about the unfaithful woman who broke his heart, Renoir uses the first of the many brilliant dissolutions in the film to lead us directly through the ether to this woman. We cut to the back of the radio and then make a panoramic view to discover Christine de la Chieneste (Nora Gregor) waiting for her personal maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost). Renoir holds the image while listening to the radio and the journalist tries to justify André’s explosion. Finally Christine goes straight to the camera and turns off the radio.
A change of environment, mood and mood cannot be more extreme. From the black and contrasting emptiness of the scene of André’s arrival we find ourselves in a luminous room with a sumptuous décor, and – as I said – almost in another century, as it seems to me. Renoir will briefly return to the dark and modern chaos of the airport, but only to contrast it with this softer, quieter and timeless world that seems strange to him in every way. As we began to suspect, André doesn’t belong in this world at all – as evidenced by the fact that Christina turned off the intrusive sound of the radio. André, who came out of the sky and landed in a sea of darkness, raw and emotional, had no context, but here we meet a woman who is completely context, does not betray emotion and is completely determined by her environment.
Christina and Lisette don’t mention André directly, although they both know about the bomb he just detonated in their world. Instead, they talk slippery – and somewhat derogatory – about love in general, and that’s where we begin to learn the rules of the game. Christine asks the maid about her husband, and Lisette tells her he’s not dangerous: After all, he’s in the country and she’s in Paris. So she has lovers? It’s a big word, says Lisette, who goes on to explain that men are all the same: She gives them what she feels, but whatever they get, they just want more. What about friendship, Christine? With a man? Lisette doesn’t care. If pigs have wings!
In this scene, Renoir explicitly begins to construct the structure of his film, as the rules of the game are arranged in parallel romantic parallelograms. He borrowed the four main characters – the faithful husband, the unfaithful husband, the desperate lover and the mediating friend – from Marianne Musse’s Caprice, but at the same time called them a grotesque situation between the upper and lower classes, whose plots overlap and comment on each other. So here we have the first of many dubbings in the film, in which Christine indirectly talks about her own situation, while Lisette looks at her eyes in the mirror and seems to see her maid reflecting backwards.
Later, however, it will turn out that the roles are not so clearly divided, but rather misplaced. In this scene we suspect that the two women are two sides of the same medal, because we suspect that Christine cheated on André. (Of course, now he’s made the whole world believe it was her.) But it wasn’t really her: Christine still believes in marital fidelity and a parallel romance makes her counterpart – Lisette’s husband, not Lisette herself. So at this stage of the film, the shot in the mirror is more prophetic than descriptive: Lisette, with her nonchalant attitude of romantic morality, is what Christine could become at the end of the film.
For the reasons we’ll discuss below, the Christina character is by far the most difficult character for me in the rules of the game. But I think part of the challenge for the modern non-French-speaking viewer is that, like me, at first glance we probably see her as the perfect embodiment of the French upper class. If you read subtitles, for example, you can’t hear your accent. (Gregor, born in Austria, actually spoke very little French). That Christine, as the actress who interprets it, is only in this world for a few years, we might not realize until later in the film, through conversation.
Gregor, the wife of the former Austrian vice-chancellor, fled with her husband to France after the Anschluss and practically lived in exile. In the original scenario, Renoir imagined this character as a typical French woman from the upper class, but he completely reimagined the role of Gregor. So Christine is, like Gregor, Austrian, new to French high society. As we learn, she’s much more innocent than she looks: She still learns the tricks of the trade herself, which her maid understands much better.
Only later do we realize that Christine Lisette’s reckless interrogation – her questions about lovers, her questions about her friendships with men – was a legitimate attempt to understand the confused morals of the people around her (especially men). She tried to understand how André, whom she actually considered a friend, could understand their relationship so badly (and so publicly). And whether she knew it or not, she tried to understand her unfaithful husband, Marquis Robert de la Chaineste (Marcel Dalio).
Like Gregory, Dalio, the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, was a strange choice to represent the senseless decadence of the French bourgeoisie. (See Gregor and Dalio in these roles seems to be part of what sparked some right-wing and anti-Semitic elements in the French public). But Dalio is a fantastic actor who brings a sad and complex humanity to what a cartoon role could have been.
And Renoir consciously relies on the viewer’s associations with the character he played in Grand Illusion, the Jewish officer Rosenthal. Later in the film, the servants are as snobbish and anti-Semitic as their masters, if not more so than destroying Robert’s lineage: They call him Eid, and one of them says his grandfather was Rosenthal. More than a wink, the line humorously suggests that Robert could literally come from the nouveau riche family of the character Dalio in Renoir’s previous film. This makes the rules of the game a kind of continuation of the Great Illusion: spiritually, if not literally, then somehow not happy. Renoir seems to say it lowered the walls between classes in the Great Illusion: Rosenthal could be Boeldieu or Raufenstein. All these troublemakers and rozentales have not changed French society: French society has changed the Marshals and the Rosenthals. (To be honest, I’m a little sad: the rules of the game could have been called The Great Disappointment).
Just like Christine, Robert completes the radio programme about André at the beginning of this scene. The men are so naive, Robert says, that they casually reject Andre’s outburst and alleviate Christine’s fear, which seems to have resigned itself to the fact that Andre has simply mistaken their friendship for love. In fact, in all the rules of the game, men are not only, but above all, almost without exception, naive and childish. Robert uses his immense fortune to entertain himself with toys: old vending machines (which he obsessively collects and worships) and people who frankly seem similar or even less interesting to him. Remember Böldier in Grand Illusion, who said he adhered strictly to all decency, even with his own wife and mother – Robert was strict and formal with his wife, using the formal pronoun vous instead of the informal tu. In any case, the combined effect for me is a little boy pretending to be a sophisticated, worldly man who keeps a close eye on the rules of the game that men like Boeldieu have set for centuries. This kind of rude, arrogant and reckless expression of emotion on André’s part violates the rules of this society.
Robert Christine’s tacit and diplomatic assurances that he knew André’s accusation meant nothing prompted her to make an open statement. I trust you completely, she tells him, and this sudden opening – she’s not French, she remembers – makes him shudder. Because Robert is obviously cheating on her with a woman named Genevieve (Mila Pareli). Out of shame Robert immediately calls Geneviève to make an appointment to break up with her.
(As we have already seen, mirrors will play an important role in the whole piece. Here Robert, feeling guilty, stands in the mirror while calling his lover, but his self-awareness is lukewarm and incomplete: typical of his whole character, he never looks himself in the face).
Robert’s weakness and indecision will be visible throughout the film. (He later confuses his gardener by explaining that he wants to keep the rabbits off his property, but that he doesn’t want the man to put up fences. He demands that his life be lived in a certain way, but he doesn’t want to take any real action or make any decisions). His meeting with Geneviève goes in exactly the same way: Her determination to do the right thing collapses, just as Genevieve suggests that ending the affair would make her unhappy. (Good thing you’re a wimp, she says.) She actually assumes Christine’s the problem: Parisienne will understand, she says, and assures her it’s him, and not Christine, who will understand how the game should be played. (Geneviève has already proclaimed her own philosophy, quoting the 18th century French writer Nicolas Chamfort: Love, as it exists in society, is simply the mix of two fantasies and the touch of two skins).
So far we have discussed three of the four sides of the romantic parallelogram borrowed by Renoir van Musset: the faithful wife (Christine), the unfaithful wife (Robert) and the desperate lover (André). Now let’s talk about the fourth, the mediator friend Octavian, played by Renoir himself.
Like many of Renoir’s films, The Rules of the Game was a family affair: Jean’s younger brother, Claude, was a producer, his son Alain was a director of photography, his wife Dido was a scriptwriter and his long-time lover, Marguerite, was an editor. Renoir first chose his older brother Pierre for the role of Octave, but Pierre made a career in Paris: When Renoir decided to run most of the rules of the game in Sologne, 150 miles away, Pierre didn’t want to spend so much time out of town. Renoir then offered the role to Michel Simon, who played in Renoir’s Boudu sauvé de la noyade (1932) and whom my readers know well from L’Atalante (1934), but Simon was bound by other commitments. Renoir was looking for another actor, but as he later admitted, I didn’t look very good. I was just waiting for Pierre to speak: Why don’t you play the part yourself, Jean? He didn’t have to ask me twice. (Renoir had previously played small roles in his films and had always dreamed of becoming an actor).
This is another case of random casting, because you can’t imagine the rules of the game without Renoir’s Octave. (I often have accidents, as Renoir said about his filming in general). Because if The Rules of the Game is a film without a central character, Octavian is in every way the melancholy heart of the film and a key figure in the structure of the story. (I mean this word literally: the octave is the figure around which the complex rays of Renoir’s story revolve).
In Grand Illusion we talked about the power of characters who have learned to navigate through the porous walls that separate the classes, and Octavian is one of those characters. Octavian comes from a higher class, but has a bad background, and is a professional musketeer. (If I hadn’t had a few tolerant friends, I’d be starving, he says later). But his special status makes him a free-thinking figure in these tightly defined worlds, a kind of fixer and impostor with good intentions, a mercurial double agent in class wars. (In love with Christine, if not a real affair, he has a healthy flirtation with his maid, Lisette). Nowhere at home, he is at home everywhere; the perfect stranger, he is in the room where he wants to be; all alone in the world, he is everyone’s best friend. He understands the rules of the game like everyone else, and he has a role to play in enforcing them, but somehow they never apply to him. (See how he caresses Christina – his childhood friend – and in the same breath reprimands her for being too familiar with people like Andre. You throw yourself around people’s necks like a 12-year-old girl, he tells her, just before you let her down on the bed to enjoy their gentle caresses).
Octave is by far the most sympathetic character in the film, and – thanks in large part to Renoir’s sensitive performance (and the fact that he gives himself the best lines) – he also appears as the clearest and most round. And I think that’s why for much of the film we are tempted to read it as the most worthy, the voice of moral authority in the film, the secret referee of ethical relations and true love. Nevertheless, at the end of the film we will have reason to reconsider this point of view. (Here he calls Christine an angel, a dangerous angel.) A few moments later Robert unconsciously repeats this observation in Octavian and calls him a poet, a dangerous poet. Both descriptions are accurate).
It is tempting to read much of Jean Renoir in Octave, and to recognize the author’s voice on the film in his dialogues. I won’t let myself go there and I’m sure – even if it’s true – that Octavian represents Renoir’s judgment of himself just as much as other figures represent his judgment of others in French society. But Octavian has the most famous line in the movie, and I think that line is pure Renoir: A terrible thing in life: Everyone has their reasons. Octave Renoir is someone who can identify with everyone, who sees and understands the motives of all his fellow human beings and can even put himself in his place.
(In this six-minute episode of the film, Octavian speaks to André, Lisette, Christine and Robert separately and essentially says the same thing to all of them: Trust me, I’ll take care of everything. Almost all of their goals are mutually exclusive, of course, and Octavian can’t arrange things in such a way that each of them gets what they want. But when he talks to them, not only does he see their point of view, but he seems to think they’re right).
The way Octavian approaches his friendship, I think this is the way Renoir approaches his characters: Sympathize with everyone, look at their motivations from their point of view and appreciate their imperfect humanity for their own good, as something precious and beautiful. And it’s knowing all the truths that make it terrible: Understanding is not the same as justification; empathy is not the same as forgiveness; and it is absolutely impossible – no matter how hard you try – for anyone to have a happy ending.
SECOND ACT: YACHT
I have not read Les Caprices de Marianne, the piece by Alfred de Musset that inspired the plot of Rules of Play. Using the synopsis I was able to find the piece and in Henri Sauguet’s 1954 comic opera, based on the piece, Renoir roughly rehearsed the most important parts of the plot, including the role of Octave (the only character whose name Renoir used in the piece), the moral scruples of a faithful ex-wife and the murder of a potential lover at the end of the story.
However, I know little about the French theatre of the 19th century. I didn’t have any such associations: The second and third acts of the Rules of the Game reminded me of the comedies of Shakespeare. The meeting at the estate, the partying and masquerade, the false identities, the confused romantic machinations and the comic counterpoint of the upper and lower class characters remind me of Much Ado About Nothing.
The equation is superficial, but potentially useful: In Shakespeare’s comedies – from Much Ado About Nothing to As You Like It to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – moving from the city to the countryside usually means a narrowing of class distinctions and a relaxation of the strict rules of decency that govern society. The land is a place of chaos, misbehaviour, false dancing and a more direct expression of nature’s desires and desires than life at court allows. It is at this point that tensions reach a boiling point and are released indiscriminately in order to restore (or even improve) the balance in a given society. It’s a place where the queen can cooperate with the asshole, but at the end of the game everyone goes back to his place in the law.
In the first half of Law II, all the characters, including André, moved to Robert Colinière’s estate thanks to the intervention of Octavian. And these are the other members of our underclass romance love affair. First we meet Schumacher (Gaston Maudot), Robert’s gardener and Lisette’s distant husband. Schumacher, we soon learn, is obsessed with protecting the estate from invading poachers, and this subtle but effective metaphor becomes increasingly clear as the film progresses: The only perfectly faithful woman in the film, married to one of the most productive philanthropists, is waging a senseless war against poaching, or infidelity. (To promote the argument that The Rules of the Game is at least a mental extension of The Great Illusion, it’s interesting to note that in the previous film, Maudot played an engineer who worked for the Land Registry, which means it was his job to draw the boundaries of the properties. In any case, Renoir saw each of his actors in a certain way and systematically integrated them into his thematic obsessions).
This makes Schumacher, at least in theory, one of the few indisputable moral authorities in the cinema, at least in the field of marriage. But he’s also one of the few really unlikely characters in the film. He is humorless, embittered by his distance from Lisette (I feel like a widower), and quite cruel. (Almost the first thing you see is that he frees the cat from his cage and pulls him out when he runs away). So if one thinks that Renoir’s problem is that the bourgeoisie itself is unfaithful, then Renoir deliberately complicates this lecture by turning the one and only moralist in the film into a clever-looking and unsympathetic boredom.
Much nicer is the wobbly Marceau, played by another veteran of Grand Illusion, Julien Carette. Marceau – witty, playful and literally and figuratively a poacher – is in almost every respect the opposite of Schumacher and will (once he meets Lisette) take on the role of lover in this underdeveloped romanticism. He is also, interestingly enough, the only member of the real underclass we encounter in the rules of the game. One day the furniture will be repaired – but times are hard, even in my area – he lives off stolen rabbits and pretends to take care of an elderly mother. Marceau strives for the status of a professional servant like Schumacher and Lisette. (I’ve always dreamed of being a stay-at-home, he says. I have always dreamed of wearing a uniform).
His wish is granted by Robert, who immediately shines with the charming Marceau and so unexpectedly takes on the role of friendly intermediary in the petit-bourgeois quartet. If you think about it, it’s a great design: For Octavian, who as I said is at ease in both classes, it makes sense to be the meeting point of two parallel conspirator lines. But Renoir makes a more interesting choice: Marceau and Robert turn out to be strange spirits – these scenes illuminate the two characters together – and their shared worldly amorality forces them to be allies against the boring Schumacher. (Marceau and Octave, the two clowns in the film, only meet at the very end of the film, after unconsciously conspiring to bring the story to a tragic end).
If I tried to trace all the ways in which Renoir builds complex narrative works with an hour’s precision, I would never finish this work. But here’s a quick and simple example: André and Marceau are the two lovers of this story, potential poachers of other people’s wives. And Robert, who doesn’t want to make any real decisions, who doesn’t want to draw any real boundaries, and who only seems to live for convenience and entertainment, reacts the same way: Instead of doing the logical thing and banishing them – and despite the warnings of others – he invites them into the house. I don’t want fences or rabbits, Robert Schumacher says. I’m against fences and walls, he said to Octavian earlier, while Octavian talked about how everyone has their reasons. Renoir – neither a moralist nor a nationalist, as far as I know – nevertheless seems, through Robert, to suggest that tolerance and empathy – or appeasement, if you will – can go too far. There are times when you have to make difficult decisions or even make an enemy. But Robert, in restoring the comfortable moral decay of his decadent classroom, forgot how.
When you watch this film and try to understand the rules of the title, you are always struck by the way appearances displace reality. In fact, there are very few secrets in this world – everyone knows who loves whom, who sleeps with whom, etc. – and there are very few secrets. – but it is necessary to keep the illusion of decency. That’s one of the rules André broke when he spoke on the radio about his love for Christina. So the first thing Christina has to do in Coliniere is to put this outrageous ghost back in her bottle.
While everyone gathers to welcome the hero Andre, rumours fly around. Did they whisper or not? A man whispers, and his companion assures him that they did). Christine welcomes André with a spontaneous speech. Dear friends, I must confess something about my relationship with André Jurieu, she begins – and then describes how they actually spent long hours together before his departure, hours characterised by the rare characteristic of friendship. It is a subtle dissection of the scandal – without admitting anything – that transforms the whole story into a story that anyone can at least pretend to believe. Later Robert will thank her and the oldest guest, General (Pierre Mannier), will point out to Octave that this proves that our little Christine has class, which is rare nowadays. Christine – a foreigner, not a Parisian – begins to learn the rules of the game.
Because I spent a lot of time discussing Renoir’s cinematography in my work on Grand Illusion, I deliberately avoided it here. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the beautiful camera work, which is certainly one of the elements that make The Rules of the Game such an influential masterpiece. The best-known examples are the recordings of Renoir in the long corridors of Les Colinières, when all the guests retire to their rooms in the evening. Two years later, Orson Welles was going to impress the world with his use of depth in Citizen Kane, but here Renoir shows that he not only mastered it, but that he could use it even better. In long, continuous takes, Renoir lets the conversations and interactions of up to a dozen people – guests and servants – take place simultaneously in the foreground, in the middle and in the background. His camera focuses our gaze on a person walking down the hallway, pauses for a conversation, catches another person walking towards us to look back, and distracts our attention again. It all looks like improvised chaos, but when you imagine how difficult it must have been to film it, you realize that it is in fact a dazzling ballet, choreographed with precision.
(This reminds me of the scene in Amadeus by Milos Forman (1984) where Mozart describes his plans for rapprochement – The Marriage of Figaro. He explains that in the final of Act II eight actors sing above each other for 20 minutes. In real life, Mozart says, it’s just a noise when several people speak at the same time. But with music you can achieve perfect harmony. Renoir pushes the boundaries of cinema in The Rules of the Game, proving that the camera, in the hands of a master, can transform even apparent chaos into into intoxicating harmonious music).
And we don’t even get to the really impressive sets of the film, the first of which is the chase that ends the second act and effectively splits the film in two.
I’ll be honest: From my first observation, I enjoyed the rules of the game in a somewhat languid and disinterested way until I arrived at the hunt – at which point I sat up straight and was hypnotised to notice it. (I think I actually made a perceptive remark like Holy shit! out loud). As far as the development of the plot is concerned, little is done in the chase to the end. (The only real development in this story is Christine’s accidental discovery of an affair between her husband and Genevieve). But in terms of theme, atmosphere and set-up, this incredible ensemble is the indispensable centrepiece of the rules of the game.
It’s a film about the war, and yet there is no mention of the war, Renoir said, and we have to take it on. But the persecution is macabre than a war movie could be, and much more a judgment of Renoir’s class.
All upper class characters gather on the plateau, make the usual chit-chat and carry shotguns. And then Robert blows the trumpet and everyone takes his place behind the awning. The camera follows the white servants fighting in the forest, hitting the trees with sticks to flush the game through. The rhythmic ticking of his sticks fills the air. We see rabbits and pheasants, scared as fugitives on the run, running helplessly towards their doom. From a director known for his long missions, the cutbacks here go faster and faster, to the anticipation of a madness. We see the rabbits running away, then the first shot sounds, and the rabbit that we see stops running and falls to the ground dies. For more than a full minute we listen to the cacophony of gunfire and see the birds fall from the sky and the rabbits stop in their tracks. We see at least 20 slaughtered animals on the screen, the 20 represent the innumerable tens to hundreds of people killed during the hunt. On the last one, a rabbit, the camera lingers for five or six seconds while the sound of the recording fades and the trumpet sounds again, and the animal twists, cherishes and dies.
It’s absolutely monstrous, and it should be monstrous. Renoir himself didn’t shoot Animal Death: Too late on his schedule, necessarily elsewhere, he entrusted the animal scenes to his assistant director André Zoboda and director of photography Jacques Lemaire. However, according to his son Alain, Renoir did not want to film these scenes or even see them filmed, because the sight of dying animals was unbearable for him.
It is even difficult to put into words what this order means. As far as the plot is concerned, we can certainly read that it prefers the end of the film. (They’re taking us for rabbits!) Octave warns André at the beginning of the hunt. At the end of the film we see André shot, huddled and dead as the last rabbit. Marceau, whose first appearance with the dead rabbit could also be seen as a herald of his role in André’s death, tells Octavian how André fell like an animal during the hunt).
And as we read in the order of the great symbolism, it clearly warns of the horrors of the Second World War, of the imminent suffering of innocent people that France had in its sights and for which he unconsciously closed his eyes. Years later Renoir claimed that he had not intentionally hung such signs:
Ah! No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Then I thought about it, but in a very vague way. I didn’t tell myself: It is absolutely necessary to express that in this film, because we are going to fight a war. But because I knew we were going to have a war, because I was absolutely sure we were going to have a war, my work in spite of myself was permeated by it.
And that’s exactly what this order is for me: It is clear that this does not become an omen or symbolism, but that it evokes an emotional reaction that stems from a general concern for humanity, more than a specific narrative purpose or social commentary. It’s about cruelty. It is reckless, careless and reckless destruction, as in sports and entertainment. The point is that the strong do not care about the powerless, except for their use. (After the hunt the general tells an amusing story about what happened to his friend George, who accidentally shot a servant while giving him a shotgun. He died 20 minutes later! The general speaks, laughs loudly, and everyone joins in. Their sympathy – as long as it is expressed – goes out to poor George, not to the servant who was murdered without a name). So this incredible coherence concerns the kind of attention – and cordiality – that can be applied to personal and political situations, to relationships between loved ones, to classes and nations. That is, it’s about war, ruthless love, the relationship between master and servant. Because it fundamentally justifies society, normalizes it and even celebrates a total lack of empathy. That – my fame limited to two films – sounds like a real Jean Renoir obsession.
ACT 3: MOROSE DANCE
As we enter the third and final act of Rules of Play, where all these characters and plots in a party scene clash with complex, funny, hectic and ultimately tragic choreographies, I realize that I cannot do justice to all of Renoir’s movements and machinations. So let me keep up appearances and take a step back to discuss some of the characters and suddenly more in general.
First, let me address one of the central characters in this comedy of mistakes: Christine. I’ve already said that Christine is the most difficult character to understand in the film, and her motivations become more opaque as we approach the end of the story, and her affections seem to shift – at least between four different men. This is partly thanks to Nora Gregor, who is not the most dynamic actress in my opinion. (It’s perfectly adequate, but in this stellar cast it seems to be easily overshadowed by one of its stage partners). But part of the mistake is whether this is a mistake in Renoir’s script, making him feel like he’s always watching Christine from a distance: She is a confused object of affection, but she is rarely the object of Renoir’s sensitive and nuanced attention, as are characters like Robert and Octavian.
But there’s an important scene, I think, the night before the hunt. It takes place in a hallway, and it is one of those conversations where Renoir pauses in his crowd with complex choreographies in order to concentrate. First of all Christine talks to Robert, who officially thanks her for treating André so delicately and helping him save face. Then she talks to Lisette, who we’ve already seen searching for instructions on the rules of the game, to see how the Parisian thinks. Out of nowhere, she asks Lisette: Don’t you want kids? Of course, Lisette says, but they take so much time. That’s the beauty of it, says Christine nostalgically. That’s your only concern. And Lisette, uninterested in the subject, immediately starts talking about Marceau, her next frivolous love story.
The next time we see Christine is on the hunt, just before we start shooting. She asks her niece Jackie (Anne Mayen) if she would like to hunt, and Jackie answers yes. Jackie refers the question back to Christina, who shrugs her shoulders and says nothing. It’s a fleeting moment, but it says a lot about Christina: The expression on his face suggests another series of boring, useless and joyless gestures. She doesn’t have kids to take care of her. She only has a formal and passionate relationship with her husband, who is obsessed with toys. There’s nothing real in his life, just these endless, empty games.
And so after the chase – and after she saw Robert and Genevieve kissing – something changes in Christine, I think. She was a faithful wife and thought she had at least one faithful husband. Now that she knows the opposite, I think she is looking for a way to find happiness within the specific limitations and conventions of this system. She starts playing like the French. (After all, they seem much happier than they are, so maybe there’s something in there?) Their actions in the third act, which have such devastating consequences, seem to stem from their sudden and somewhat silent attempt to get something real out of this useless existence.
She starts by meeting Geneviève, a typical Parisian, and meets her in her own way. The day after the hunt, Christine goes to the house of Geneviève and offers to speak frankly and pretend she has always known about Robert’s affair. Am I a woman with problems? She asks her husband’s mistress. Have I ever tried interfering in your relationship with my husband? Geneviève is shocked, but Christine plays the game brilliantly. She laughs at Robert’s behavior as if talking to her friend, while she feels that Geneviève is out of the game because the relationship has progressed so far. At the end of the conversation Christine leaves Robert with Geneviève, arguing that the fact that Robert takes less care of her is good.
During the masquerade Christine chooses a guest, Monsieur St Aubin (Pierre Ne), with whom she is having an affair. She has many other suitors – Andre, Robert and Octavian – who are desperate for her at the party, but for her first outing in the world of infidelity she seems to consciously choose someone with whom she has no emotional connection. And why not? Sex is just a game, the fusion of two skins: That’s what the French taught him.
The situation – any situation, really – comes to mind in the incredible second shot of the film, the Danse Macabre scene. After some light entertainment, the party darkens and a dancing skeleton, surrounded by ghosts, enters the stage when the disturbing Dance of Death by Saint-Saëns plays on the mechanical piano. The absolute darkness of the stage space of the show, only the glow of the white costumes, reminds us of the opening scenes of the film Le Bourget, figures without context of the real contemporary world. But there is now a darkness in the house that has real consequences for this once so frivolous environment, which reminds us – in the manner of Red Death – that these stupid people amuse themselves while the shadow of evil now engulfs Europe. Here one feels Renoir’s conviction that the upper middle class is dancing on the edge of the volcano.
This is another example of Renoir’s blinding blockade as his camera moves through the room and past various doors, giving the drama an almost wordless crescendo. First we find Schumacher on one side of the room, looking for his wife, who kisses Marceau a little further on. We follow Schumacher’s path through the hall, through the crowd, in and out. When we walk through the middle of the room, we see Christine, the drunk, and Saint-Aubyn laughing and flirting. Schumacher passes in front of them and reaches the door where Marceau and Lisette are intertwined, and they move away from each other as he approaches. Right behind them we see André, alone and unhappy, watching Christine and Saint-Aubin: We follow his gaze, we come back to them when they get up together and disappear. We follow them out of the ballroom while Octavian – still in his bear costume from the previous performance – chases them. Christine pushes him away and runs away with Saint-Aubyn, and when Octavian withdraws, all the main characters join him in the hallway: Robert and Geneviève, André and Marceau, quickly followed by Lisette and Schumacher. (In the years before the Steadicam, director Wim Wenders said about Renoir, one wonders how a film camera could have been so light).
There are more fantastic scenes in the background than I can discuss in detail, and I feel guilty about the plots and sequences I summarise. The love story of the lower class, for example, is delicious and in many ways more fun than that of the higher class. (Paulette Dubost and Julien Carrette almost walked away with the film.) But it’s easier than that: Renoir plays him mainly as a relief player, and while he shows a bit of class snobbery, he doesn’t go very deep into his motives. Lower classes are more primitive, more spontaneous, driven by simple desires and solutions. Their goal seems to be to provide a comic counterbalance to overly complicated and phonetically intelligent beliefs of the upper class. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems by setting an example. If you want to sleep with a man, you just have to sleep with him. If someone tries to steal your wife from you, all you have to do is shoot them. All your rules and peculiarities stand 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. These two can hardly differ from each other anymore: Robert is a rich man who scrupulously respects all the rules of decency, while Marceau is a poor man who completely ignores all the laws and commandments. Robert is pure order and Marceau is pure chaos, which perhaps explains the preference of the first for the second. (Robert even intervenes with Marceau when Schumacher tries to kill him: he seems to encourage Marceau to outsmart the gamekeeper’s harshness). Because deep down inside, they’re both the same: They are amoral sensualists who want to sleep with all women, and they want to live their lives without consequences for their actions. It is Marceau who admits that Robert would like to be Arab because he would actually enjoy a harem. They always have a favourite, but they don’t kick the others out or hurt them, Robert says. I don’t want to hurt anyone, especially not a woman. To maintain a harem you need money, Marceau says, but Robert knows that wealth is not saved. Even with money, I keep hurting everyone. Robert has the money, but he doesn’t have Marceau’s freedom: It is surrounded by ridiculous rules of decency and the need to keep up appearances, and by the illusion of morality, if not reality. Only with his favourite vending machines, which he can openly buy and own and which have no feelings to hurt, can he find the sad feeling of happiness he is looking for.
In the second half of the Rules of the Game, we realise how upper class people, especially Robert and Christina, are trapped within the walls they built themselves, cut off from everything that is real, precious and human. They look briefly and hard for a way out, but can’t find it or grab hold of it. Christine ran off with Saint-Aubin for a quick flirtation, but she was interrupted by André, who hit the other man in the face. Saint-Aubin sees it as a call for a formal duel to make crime part of the morality of this society, but André does not want to enter into such a formality: Instead, they settle for a good old-fashioned fistfight. Andre breaks the rules again: He rejects decency, acts emotionally, behaves, in short, like the lower class.
And only then do I find an explanation for Christine’s sudden declaration of love when she and Andre are alone again. At this point, I think Christine sees Andre as the solution: Not only a way out of their loveless marriage, but also a way to break the stifling and pointless rules of the game and come to something real. After all, he’s a man who violates morals and swears on the radio at the top of his lungs. He’s a man who ignores morals and fights in the middle of a party. I don’t believe for a second that Christina loves him, but I think she knows that love has to be something dirtier, simpler and more honest than the strict rules of her society allow. André, at least honestly, and right now he looks like their way to something authentic.
But André – who has just offered everything he’s ever wanted – distorts things. Christine wants (as she will explain later to Octavian) André to kiss her, kidnap her, take her away from everything. Instead, André inevitably withdrew into respectability, the only thing she wanted to escape from. He says he needs to talk to Robert: He can’t run away with his master’s wife without an explanation. But since we’re in love, who cares? Still, Christine, there are always rules, he says, and with this sentence, with this word, he loses it forever. Different rules. No more games. The more sublimated the authentic emotion is to formality and decorum. With her eyebrows close together and her lips mashed, Christina makes the same expression of boredom as when she was asked if she wanted to hunt.
And she went looking for someone else. This happens, ironically, because André and Robert share their fate. Once again, both men briefly give in to pure and sincere feelings: Robert wisely beats the man who tried to steal his wife from him, and they quarrel when Schumacher tries to shoot Marceau for the same reasons. All rules are suspended, all masks fall off, all honest feelings come out.
However, this is only a temporary setback. When a shot goes off and almost hits him, Robert comes to his senses and remembers who he is, forcing all his primary emotions to return to the limitations of the habit. The party’s over, the rules are back in place. He fires Schumacher to set up a dangerous scene, 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’s departure. When he gets back to Andre, he’s polite, polite, peaceful. He admits the match for Christine André: I’m glad it’s with someone from our film crew! He says cheerful.
(Robert’s conversation reveals his sad distance from the more honest passions of the working class – and perhaps even his envy about them. Do you know what our sporting achievement reminded me of? He asked André, laughing. Sometimes I read articles in the newspaper about an Italian worker trying to seduce the wife of a Polish worker. It ends with a stab wound. I never thought such things would happen, but they do! We think it’s the most exciting thing he’s ever been involved in, a story he’ll tell his upper class friends for years to come).
In the meantime, for obvious reasons, Christina has abandoned both and thrown herself directly into the arms of someone who loves her more simply and directly: Octavian.
Octavian is the last protagonist we have to talk about in the rules of the game. He’s the only one who really touches me, and I think that’s debatable, the only one who really changes in the movie.
I think as soon as Octavian starts to change, maybe we should go back to the Dance of Death scene. We’ve already seen Octavian hunt for his musical songs and beg someone to help him take off his bear suit. But everyone’s too busy: André is looking for Christine; Robert and Geneviève run away together; Christine runs away to be alone with Saint-Aubin; Lisette and Schumacher are carried away in their drama, and so on. Octave goes around the halls, meets the same people over and over again and asks them for help, which they refuse every time. You’re a good guy, but… This is not the time, said St. Aubyn, for the second time, and Christine is actually hiding from Octavian, leaving him angry and sinister. Just let me take this off and they’ll see!
At first sight, it’s just a seemingly humorous story. But with the viewings that followed, I began to find it increasingly poignant and incredibly sad. Octavian tried to help everyone with his problems throughout the film, but now no one has a moment to help him. He’s everyone’s friend, but he only walks around in a ridiculous bear suit while everyone else is floating around. He’s a foreigner and he’s not considered an equal. He’s a clown, and he’s all alone, and I think he gets it here.
Geneviève finally helps him take off the suit, but she does so by arguing with Robert. If she still loved you, she wouldn’t be with Obin, she would have told Robert, and we see that Octavian has recorded the news that Christine can actually go somewhere and have a cheap affair with this puppeteer. He loves her – he has made that clear – and this must be another blow to his pride not to be part of his love triangle/rectangle/pentagon. He’s just a clown, just a funny teddy bear.
The reality of his life collapsed on him, outside, in the small yard at the back of the house. Earlier we heard how Octavian grew up with Christina, who made music under the direction of her father, a great composer who loved and idolized Octavian. Now Octavian applauds Christina by talking about her father’s behavior: He joins the orchestra, enjoys the respect of the musicians and the admiration of the audience. She climbs the stairs in octave, imitates her father’s movements, bends before an invisible audience and begins to lead the pantomime. And as in a dream… he talks and raises his hands, and then he stops. He seems to pick himself up and sits down on the stairs, and when Christina tries to comfort him, he tells her to leave him alone.
Later we get his clear assessment of his life, perhaps the only self-knowledge that anyone in the film really shows. I hate to be reminded what a loser I am, he says to Christina. Leeches! As a young man, he dreamed of becoming a great man, but that never happened. And here I am, feeding on a lot of nonsense and imagining that it really happened, he says. There, on the porch, I almost thought it was happening. But then comes the fall. Nothing good ever happened to him: It’s just a moocher, a professional guest, a weird bear dancing on content.
And this, I think, is – ironically – the moment when he wins Christine’s love, because Christine strives above all for honesty and openness. And no one says that in this world. No one ever admits it’s all useless and pointless. No one ever admits to being alone. No one will ever admit they’re all losers. Christina has no children, and marriage is a sham without love. Robert has his own collection of stupid toys that he brags about as if it were some kind of achievement. Even André – the great national hero – performed a meaningless stunt (which someone else did anyway) as a useless gesture to impress a woman who didn’t want him. None of them has achieved more than Octavian, because they are not the ones who actually do something. All they have is money.
I love you, she finally told Octavian in the greenhouse. Really? We have every reason to be sceptical, because Octavian is the fourth man today, after Robert, Saint-Auban and André. Still, I tend to think there’s an authenticity in their relationship that we haven’t seen elsewhere in the rules of the game: Comfort, privacy, honesty and understanding. They really see each other, those two, and they deal with real emotions when they talk, and they know what’s important and what’s good in the game. Of course, it’s not to say how lucky they would have been as lovers for a long time. But I think that if there is a possibility of happiness somewhere in the film, it’s here, right now, where Octavian promises to do what André refused to do: kiss him, love him and take him away from this place without worrying about decency or appearance.
The morality of the rules of the game is extremely complex. The way we judge these characters is incredibly complicated, and the film refuses to do it for us. (My father never judged others, Alain Renoir said). Renoir comes straight out of the greenhouse, to return to André and Robert talking about Octave. You can trust him, Robert. He’s a good guy… I believe in the little things, but maybe I’m starting to believe in friendship. Yes, Andre agrees: Octavian is a special man. The intended irony is clear: At the same time Octavian prepares to betray them both by taking away the woman they love.
But is Octavian wrong? Renoir wants us to believe Octavian is wrong? I don’t know, but I don’t think so, because I think that love is at least real at that moment, and that makes it precious in this superficial and artificial world. Renoir’s condemnation of the bourgeoisie seems to be that nothing they do or say is real: They are just games, words and attitudes, without moral courage, without real choices and without real consequences. Octavian’s fault is not to betray the rules of the game, but to follow them at the last moment out of cowardice and error of the nobility. Just as he and Christina are about to escape this imaginary world, he surrenders to decency.
For me, this is the last tragedy in the game. Not Andre’s death, it’s as stupid and useless as Andre’s love, as stupid and useless as Andre himself. Andre’s accidental death is only a side effect of the real mistake, namely that Octavian Lisette discouraged him from running away with Christine. She says it’s wrong. If it’s just for fun, it doesn’t matter. But to live together, the young are for the young and the old are for the old. (This distinction is interesting in his mind: you can do what you want with people, as long as it means nothing to you. But there are rules for love in real life). What are they going to do without money, she asks? And then she hits Octavian with a line that stops him: Ma’am won’t be happy with you. And in a last moment of literal self-reflection, Octavian is in the mirror, in front of Lisette. And without saying a word, we know it all comes back to him: His sense of failure, his flight, his self-awareness are nothing but a clown. And then André’s character enters the game, and Octavian decides – perhaps, but wrongly – that André has an interest in making Christine happy. She’s waiting for you, he lies to the young man, gives him his own coat so he can go get Christine.
The rest is, as they say, a joke. Meanwhile, Schumacher and Marceau are getting closer. (It is one of the incredible celebrations of Renoir’s compassion that Marceau – Schumacher has just tried to shoot him – comments with the broken-hearted gamekeeper and tries to help him). The two men ambushed Octavian and mistakenly thought he was seducing Lisette in the greenhouse. (Christine was wearing Lisette’s cloak.) And now, when André turns up with Octavian’s cloak, Schumacher – the protector of the estate – shoots him.
The film begins when André disrupts the social order with his reckless approach to love. But love is a kind of carefree, innocent and romantic love that Andre never believed in in this world. Well, as in most classic comedies, the chaos and confusion of the rules of the game only reinforces and eventually restored this social order. Robert, the deputy with whom Octavian did not conduct his imaginary orchestra, gives a short speech in which he weaves all these events into a socially acceptable story that no one would really believe. It was an unfortunate accident and nothing more, he explains. (He is a stylish man, and it has become rare to hear the old general talk about Robert’s lies, repeating what he said about Christine when she made her little face-saving speech earlier). Jackie – who loved Andre – starts to fall apart, but Lisette and Christine coach her, take her hand and teach her that the rules of the game require that she shows no real emotion. An educated young woman like you should show courage, Lisette says. People are watching. Christine’s a Parisian stonemason in this one.
Only Octavian, whose lack of courage and self-confidence caused this accident and who may have missed his (and Christine’s) some chance of happiness – all this has changed under the influence of the events that have taken place. He can’t stay here: He’s tired of the game and he’s tired of being a dancing bear. He goes to Paris, Marceau says, and tries to do it himself for once in his life. I think there’s some hope for Octavian.
Otherwise nothing will change. No one will change. Christine stays with Robert and Lisette stays with Christine. Marceau is a victim of poaching again. Even the killer Schumacher was reinstated, Robert seems to have forgotten he ever fired him. Tomorrow Robert announces his guests that they will do their duty to André Jurieu, which means they will all have another meaningless feast in front of them, full of noise and anger that means nothing. The rest of the gathered guests, the rest of the bourgeois files, return to the walls of the house to resume their useless, flat, meaningless existence as a shadow.
CONTINUE IN PROGRAMME
Although I am now strongly tempted to leave the proposed programme and see everything Jean Renoir has done, the show and the story of the film must continue. So the next time I go from the French poetic realism of Renoir to the Italian neorealism of Roberto Rossellini, I will take a closer look at the drama of the Second World War in Rome, the Open City (1945).
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