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“No no no no no no no. This La Cheyniest is not a bad class. And that’s become rare, my dear Saint-Aubin. That’s become rare.”
The last line of Jean Renoir’s 1939 movie, The Rules of the Game, is already layered with ironies that drip from the screen. But the fact that it’s spoken by an old French General who looks like a dead ringer for Marshall Petain - whom one year later would be the fascist dictator of Vichy France and sent more than half-a-million French citizens to their deaths - makes the irony nothing short of cosmic. Marshall Petain would have sent the Jewish Marquis de La Cheyniest to the gas chambers and tortured his wife until she renounced her husband.
The old General is just one of some three or four dozen characters whom we feel as though we know intimately by The Rules of the Game’s end. Like the General, some of them speak as few as half-a-dozen lines. Yet that’s all it takes for us to understand everything about them: their backgrounds, their motives, their aspirations.
It’s just one of the many aspects of this film that firmly convinces me that this is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. But over the nine years since I first viewed La Règle du jeu in the American University library, this is the quality which makes me value it most. This movie is humanity portrayed as it is: with every person given a story, everyone’s perspectives forever shifting, everyone’s sympathies forever changing. And just as the characters evolve from minute-to-minute, we can’t help but evolve from watching them.
Within 106 minutes, The Rules of the Game not only contains the whole human experience, but nearly the whole cinematic one as well. It is as farcical as The Marx Brothers, funny as Mel Brooks, seductive as Howard Hawks, cruel as Martin Scorsese, violent as Quentin Tarantino, cynical as Billy Wilder, tragic as Kurosawa, full of symbolism as Bergman, precise as Kubrick, politically controversial as Oliver Stone, surreal as David Lynch, relateable as Ozu. But humane as only The Rules of the Game can be.
The farce is pitched at a level as fast as anything in Fawlty Towers or Frazier and is all the more impressive because we’re watching three parallel farces play out simultaneously. We see two servants fight over the same female servant at the same time that we watch four masters fight over the woman whom the female servant attends at the same time that we watch a farce which the characters watch onstage. At one particularly feverish point in the movie, the the Lord of the Manor, Marquis de La Cheyniest, tells his butler to “Stop this Farce!”, to which the butler replies “Which one?”
It would be odd to think that the humor of a movie about the French aristocracy is lowbrow, but it really is. The funniest moments in the movie take their cue from comedy no higher-brow than a custard pie fight in The Three Stooges. Take, for example, the scene when the Marquis’s gamekeeper, Schumacher, goes on a shooting spree through the Marquis’s house in an attempt to kill his wife’s new lover. The Marquis’s party guests think that the spree is yet another farce. And then, in the Marquis’s typically understated way, he says, “I’m afraid I have no choice but to dismiss you. It breaks my heart, but I can’t expose my guests to firearms. It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives.” Even when the humor seems highbrow, low comedy lurks beneath the surface. Take that scene towards the beginning when we meet Genevieve, the saucily unstable mistress of the Marquis. The Marquis calls her on the morning of the hunting trip, and as she picks up the phone, we see that she is still in her evening gown - entertaining an entire table of men still dressed in the white ties they no doubt wore at the previous evening’s soiree. As a simultaneous commentary on three different situations, she quotes Chamfort to them, “Love, as it exists in society, is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins.”
It is all too easy to be seduced by these characters. Like in Mad Men or The Godfather, we are supposed to love these people even as we know that there is something repulsive about them. The easy life of good manners and elaborate leisure is a way of charming us - as though to say ‘don’t you wish you could be a part of this life.’ And invariably, yes we do. These are people who view life as a non-stop party - no worries about money, servants to take care of practical matters, every meal a banquet and casual sex held up as a religion. Yet just as in Mad Men, the whiff of rot creeps in from just beneath the oriental rug. These are people so afraid of their inner selves that they must gorge themselves on pleasure so that they might forget the emptiness which so often fills their souls. Take the Marquis’s Austrian wife, Christine. She is the prize which nearly every man in the movie seems to seek. She is a blank slate onto which men assign all the qualities they desire in women. How can they do this? Because Christine seems no better to know what she wants than the men who hound her, and she seems only able to define herself by the men who desire her. By the end of the movie, she has declared her love to three different men in the span of a day and tries to have sex with a fourth. This is the logic of seduction carried to its logical end - that life is nothing more than a series of beautiful moments, and the agonizing emptiness that awaits us in between them.
And to fill all this emptiness requires unmitigated cruelty. One of the most celebrated scenes in the movie is the hunting scene. We watch dozens of servants hit the trees of the forest with wooden blocks to scare rabbits out of their holes. We then watch these aristocrats pick off the rabbits and squirrels with all the same ease which we shoot soldiers in video games. But this is not a video game, this is a real hunt, and we are watching living animals served up for a massacre. Perhaps the most famous shot in the movie is a camera following a rabbit as he darts about until he’s shot. For five seconds, the rabbit tenses up in every muscle, and then exhales as though going to sleep. This is not the cartoon violence of horror movies, this is the real thing. And just as these people are thoughtlessly cruel to animals, they’re thoughtlessly cruel to one another. Near the beginning of the movie, the famous pilot, Andre Jurieu, is lovesick for Christine. After being the first man since Charles Lindbergh to fly across the Atlantic, he realizes that Christine was not there to greet him. He is so heartbroken that - in a scene played for laughs - he tries to kill himself by driving his car into a tree. Of course, killing himself is his right, but his friend Octave is in the car with him.
To say the least, this is a movie with a low regard for human nature - its cynicism peals off the screen. Friendship is fleeting and love is folly in our world. But it does pity us our condition. From the moment we meet Eduard, the Marquis’s gamekeeper, we are clearly supposed to hate him. He seems like a caricature of a Teutonic authoritarian who repeatedly declares that poachers should always be shot when caught. His logic proves less dubious than it first seems. The poacher in question turns out to be Marceau, a rogue who so charms the Marquis that the Marquis allows him to become a member of his staff - whereupon Marceau sets himself upon the task of poaching Eduard’s wife, Lisette. Towards the end of the movie, Marceau and Eduard are both fired for having caused a disruption in the party. Eduard also learns that Lisette never loved him. Marceau, having fled Eduard’s gun only ten minutes earlier, comes outside to find Eduard openly weeping, and consoles him. Within the span of ten minutes, the bitterest of enemies become close friends. And still later, when they both think they’ve spotted Lisette with another man, they become co-conspirators. And from their machinations comes a terrible tragedy - all the more devastating for having been so unexpected.
Like a great French artists, Renoir combines breathless entertainment with a kind of philosophical commentary. Renoir claimed that the movie was based primarily on a number of different French comedies. But it’s difficult not to also see the hands of Proust and perhaps even some religious art moving through this. Merely through the suggestions of the camera, there seem to be all sorts of speculations about the meanings of human nature. Symbolism seems to be found in every shot. Nowhere moreso than the Marquis’s obsession with music-boxes. Near the end of the movie, the Marquis unveils a music box so large as to be more an organ. It plays extraordinarily elaborate music. The ‘organ’ is carved all around with musicians - each of which plays its own role in creating the music. Together, all these parts function as an extraordinary whole.
Upon what is this a commentary? Is this meant to symbolize human beings and the way that they relate to one another - each with a simple role they must play in order to contribute to the whole of society? Or is it meant to be the Marquis’s view of human beings - a perfectly ordered society in which every person knows his place? Or is it just a music box? And since one guest tries to hide behind the music box in order to get away from Eduard’s shooting spree, the music box immediately malfunctions and creates a horrible screeching noise. Is that not supposed to be symbolic?
But every one of these attributes are mere parts of an indelible whole. What it takes to fuse farce, comedy, eroticism, seduction, cruelty, cynicism, compassion, tragedy and philosophy together is enormous skill. Everything from the acting to the editing to the photography to the lighting to the sets to the costuming must be exactly right. A good director is one who can get his crew to contribute all those elements. A great director is one who can attach them to great vision.
Jean Renoir, the son of famous painter Auguste Renoir, was in one light perhaps the greatest of all directors - which is what Orson Welles called him. In another, he was a mere journeyman. Renoir spent the 1930’s as a rising star of French movies. The success of his World War I film, The Grand Illusion, gave him the money he needed to start his own production company. With himself as his own primary financier, Renoir could make any film he wished. But like Orson Welles, Renoir’s carte blanche was to last for only one movie. It may seem difficult to believe that a movie about French aristocracy could provide the most famous riot in the history of film, but it’s true. The premiere of The Rules of the Game was such a disaster that one audience member attempted to set fire to the theater. In 1939, France stood on the edge of war with Germany, and the French were not in the mood for a movie which suggested that the fall of the old order might be inevitable. As a result of its cataclysmic premiere, the negative of the original print was destroyed. And for twenty years after, the movie remained practically unseen until some enterprising young film-makers reassembled the movie from existing copies. In 1961 The Rules of the Game was re-released, and hailed as the masterpiece we now know it to be.
The controversy that lurks just beneath this movie’s immaculate surfaces is still there for all to see. These characters are as relateable today as they were when they were made. If you’d like to meet people like these aristocrats or their servants, go to Georgetown, Beacon Hill or the Upper-East Side. The aristocracy never disappeared, they just went into remission.
Relateability is ultimately this movie’s greatest trump card. As in all great art, we see ourselves reflected back through the screen. A few years ago, I took a group of friends to a showing of La Regle du jeu in Baltimore, and one of them commented to me about how much like us these characters are. We were not aristocrats, we were unemployed recent college graduates. But we shared the same decadence of lifestyle and the same desire to pursue pleasure at the price of happiness.
Perhaps that is why I can’t, to this day, help myself from indulging in a special fondness for Octave. Played by Renoir himself, Octave is the only character who seems to fully understand the Game’s dynamics. And because of his understanding, is doomed to remain forever apart from its rewards. He is, for me, the greatest of all characters in the greatest of all movies. His rumpled attire and fat ugly mug makes him look ageless and classless - as though poured into his own flesh. Yet it is he who has all the insight into people which the other characters so clearly lack. But all his wisdom cannot help him from being the biggest fool in the entire film (perhaps in film itself). He is a character pitched between the upstairs and downstairs: Longing for the woman who’s the master, settling for meaningless flings with her servant. Longing to recapture early dreams of musical greatness, settling for farcical performances in front of friends. Longing for greater understanding between people, settling for being a temporary bridge to provide others with as much as he can of the happiness which he never finds. He is a wastrel unable to make his own living, and he relies on the kindness of his friends to convince himself of the illusion that he can live a good life. And in exchange for their kindness, he draws upon the well of his own sadness to provide them with the entertainment, humor and wisdom which they cannot provide for themselves. From him (from all such people) is provided the engine from which the entire game runs, for good or ill.
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