The Rules of the Game
(La Règle du Jeu)
At a surface level, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) looks quite a bit like one of those comedies of manners that western art has been pumping out without interruption over the past five hundred years. Take a group of aristocrats, have them declare their love for people other than their spouses, throw in some witty exchanges and mistaken identities, and let hilarity ensue.
On the eve of the Second World War, however, Renoir was going for something a little stronger.
The Rules of the Game is about a French aristocrat, Robert de la Cheyniest, who is married to Christine, the daughter of a prominent Austrian composer, and engaged in an affair with a society woman named Genevieve which he feels compelled to break off. Andre Jurieux, an unmarried aviator and national hero who has just completed a transatlantic flight, is convinced that he's in love with Christine. The threads of the various affairs are woven together and the plot is set in motion when Cheyniest invites much of Parisian high society, including Genevieve and Jurieux, for a week of hunting and carousing at his country estate. The guest list includes additional admirers of both Christine and Jurieux, and the estate's servants are as engaged in the flirtations as the elite.
Renoir's film is put together with remarkable artistry. The interior of the country estate is typically shot in deep focus, which permits characters all over the depth of field to remain sharp and foregrounded as they move in and out of the scene. There's a Rube Goldberg-like mechanism at play in the characters' movement in and out of doors and through hallways, with an organic flow from one pair or trio of arguing lovers to another. These spectacular interior scenes are interrupted by a long exterior scene of the hunting party, complete with smock-clad servants beating the bushes to chase the rabbits and pheasants toward the hunters. The film takes on a sudden incongruous grim tone as Renoir focuses on the rabbits and pheasants being blasted into stillness.
As the film's characters ferociously pair off, there's no attempt to ground their actions in any larger understanding of ideal love. Renoir's not contemptuous of his star-crossed lovers, but he suspects they're a foolish and deeply unserious people. The film ends with an abrupt, tragic act of violence that circles back to the callousness of the hunting scene and leaves one wondering on the eve of war whether this aristocracy is worth the shedding of one's blood.