Moreso than most of the films on my “Back To School” roster, The Rules Of The Game has been on my radar for quite some time, for some reason. Maybe because, until I finally watched it, I had yet to see a film by Jean Renoir. Maybe I found the title and subject matter appealing. All I know is, my viewing of this one was long overdue.
Coming in fourth on the British Film Institute’s illustrious poll of the top films of all time, The Rules Of The Game is an upstairs-downstairs story (of the likes made popular more recently with Downton Abbey), released on the eve of World War II in 1939. It was a colossal failure at the time commercially and critically, though obviously its merit has since been reconsidered.
The story concerns two central married couples and the many extramarital affairs conducted before and during the events of this movie, centered around a lavish pheasant- and rabbit-hunting excursion at a country estate. The “upstairs” couple is Robert and Christine, wealthy socialites who are the subject of much gossip (most of it speculation, and most of it true). The “downstairs” couple is Lisette, Christine’s maid, and Edouard Schumacher, the gamekeeper. I use the term “couple” loosely, because the story isn’t so much about either of these relationships, and much more about the relationships they have with other people.
It’s impossible to tell exactly who has slept with whom in The Rules Of The Game, which is a critique of upper-class French society (though the lower class doesn’t come out looking so great, either). Some of the relationships are obvious — most prominently, Christine’s affair with a famous pilot, André Jurieux. André is smitten with Christine, striving fruitlessly to impress her with his much-publicized feats in the air. Christine’s husband Robert knows all about the tryst and doesn’t much mind, as long as he doesn’t lose his precious wife; he himself is ending a lengthy romance with Geneviève, who, like André, feels more strongly about her married lover than he does for her. What is a bit more mysterious is the relationship Christine and Lisette have with their harried friend Octave, who serves as just about everybody’s confidante. (Octave is played by the director himself.) Another key figure is the poacher Marceau, who Robert inexplicably takes under his wing; in modern times, Marceau is what we would describe as “skeezy,” but that doesn’t stop Lisette from developing a hankering for him, with disastrous results.
Robert and Christine both invite their lovers, along with a host of other guests, to the country. Along the way, a few more liaisons will begin and end. A lot of comical violence erupts at a masquerade party, with fisticuffs galore and a jealous husband chasing his wife’s new paramour around the house with a firearm.
That character, though, is the only one who takes infidelity so seriously, for “the game” of the title is love and commitment, taken no more seriously than a round of bridge. These various husbands and wives are not entirely blasé about being cheated on, but they do pretend to be. When Christine witnesses her husband canoodling with Geneviève, for example, she pretends she knew all along. The two women even share a laugh about their mutual distaste for his smoking in bed! On the whole, the characters underreact to these matters, along with everything else (including the death of a major character). In contrast, the envious husband’s overreaction is at first a source of uneasy comedy, and finally, ends in a tragedy, brushed off as an unfortunate accident.
The subject matter comes off now as somewhat risqué for 1939, even though it’s all talk. You probably couldn’t make a film today in which the characters are so callous about their affairs, and so quick to change their minds about where their heart really lies. Even the spiteful characters in Mike Nichols’ painful Closer are wounded much more deeply by all the partner-swapping and deception. Here, it’s just another weekend in the country, just another party. Just another game. (A nice bit of symbolism has all these rich folk shooting and killing rabbit after rabbit, fowl after fowl, excessively and without a second thought. Make of that what you will.)
The most sincere character is the pilot André, whose old-fashioned ardor is mostly mocked by everyone else. Renoir is rather merciless in his portrayal of the frivolity of the upper class (and those who serve them), though they’re not wholly unlikable folk despite their indiscretions. No singular character is so over-the-top as to strain credulity or become a cartoon. Many moments are heightened and exaggerated, but none ring false.
Like many great films, it’s a bit hard to separate The Rules Of The Game from all the films it has since influenced. While it wouldn’t exactly make my personal list of the 10 (or 50) best films of all time, it’s an amusing satire with memorable characters who, more than 70 years later, still feel transgressive of the societal norms, which must mean something. The more I consider the film, the more I think it deserves its esteem with the BFI and elsewhere.