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Film / The Rules of the Game

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"I wanted to depict a society dancing on a volcano."
Jean Renoir

La Règle du jeu (English Title: "The Rules of the Game") is a 1939 French film, written and directed by Jean Renoir, starring Marcel Dalio, Ronald Toutain, Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Mila Parély, Julien Carette, Gaston Modot, Pierre Magnier and Renoir himself as Octave. It's a Hyperlink Story of multiple characters gathering at a country estate in France in the late-thirties, modeled on the classical French tradition of Farce and comedy of manners.

The famous aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) lands at the airport after completing a record-breaking feat. However, in front of the mass media gathered there, and in a moment of agitation, Jurieux publicly expresses his sorrow that Christine (Nora Gregor) is not there to greet him. The problem: Christine is a wealthy bourgeois married woman. Her husband, the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) hears this public Anguished Declaration of Love, as does their entire social set. In order to save face and set right Jurieux's error, his friend Octave (Renoir) goes over and convinces the Marquis that the only way to smooth things over is arrange a party at a Country estate, bring everyone they know there, invite André and show that it's no big deal. So everyone gathers at La Colinière, in Sologne.

What follows is a series of Gambit Pileup and intricate network of plots and subplots, criss-crossing each other (sometimes in the same shot). The drama involve not only Octave, the Marquis, André and Christine, but also the servants at the estate, such as the poacher Marceau (Julien Carette), the gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) and everyone else who stops by and makes a comment here and there. Everyone acts and fights in the name of love and honour, but the words rapidly lose their meaning and value in the midst of all the craziness.

Renoir's film was technically and narratively innovative. It featured the use of deep focus before Citizen Kane. The film faced a difficult exhibition complicated by the fact that World War II broke out shortly after its release, and for a long time, the film was difficult to properly see and appraise, until the end of the war, and a series of restorations. The film is available on The Criterion Collection.

This film provides examples of:

  • All Part of the Show: Schumacher chases Marceau through the mansion, trying hard to shoot him. Some of the partygoers think it's another gag.
    "Another attraction? This is too much."
  • Beary Friendly: Octave is the one character almost everyone is friends with. In the costume party section he actually dresses up as a bear.
  • Big Damn Kiss: Between Octave and Christine, when she asks him to kiss her "On the mouth, like a lover."
  • Big Fancy House: La Colinière is a large French-style country estate with huge hunting grounds, servants quarters and big interior spaces.
  • Central Theme: According to Renoir, "it is a war film and yet there is no reference to the war." That is, it's about how people, especially the upper class, try their best to ignore the looming war by indulging in trivial pursuits.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Set up with a subtle hand, only to be subverted and stomped upon. Octave and Christine have known each other since he was her father's young student. One can sense in the early scenes, despite his protests that she's a sister to him, that Octave loves Christine. Late in the film, Christine admits she's always loved Octave, and they plan to run away together. And then it's subverted— Octave gives up and lets Andre "win," which leads to Andre's death.
  • Collector of the Strange: The Marquis is one. He collects sculptures, trinkets and other contraptions to get people's admiration and respect. The climax of the Fete at the country estate has him display a dizzying automated music box with gears, movable dolls and other gizmos, and the camera pans across and rests on his face sweating to see the crowd respond to his newest gimmick.
    • Genevieve qualifies too; her apartment is filled with statues and screens from the Far East.
  • Crazy Cultural Comparison: Christine and Octave are both Austrian; despite having lived in France for some years, they still feel like outsiders. According to Octave, Andre thought Christine was "leading him on" because her manners were, to a Frenchman, very romantic and encouraging.
  • The Dead Can Dance: One of the theatre shows at the Mansion, as part of evening entertainment, has aristocrats dress up as skeletons and the pianola actually plays Camille Saint-Saëns "Dance Macabre".
  • Deadpan Snarker: In typical French tradition. The Marquis (played by Dalio) dismisses the gamekeeper Schumacher after he chases Marceau for seducing his wife, and firing at him indoors through the mansion:
    Marquis de la Chesnaye: I have no choice but to dismiss you. It breaks my heart, but I can't expose my guests to your firearms. It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives.
  • Deconstruction: Renoir intended this to be one for the Neoclassical French Farce, complete with unities of space, time and action (i.e. single location, a short time span, and actions concerning a particular plot) but he gradually takes apart the form, by emphasizing the network of class relations between masters and servants, the angst faced by characters about being sidekicks to someone else's story, and the objectification of women's love in all opposition to her real desires.
  • Downer Ending: Jurieux dies, Christine faints in despair knowing that Octave refused to return her affections. Octave and Marceau walk away from the mansion, with Octave seemingly likely to never see Christine again. The Marquis tells the guests of the mansion to go back inside, and pretend as if nothing has happened.
  • Dramatic Irony: The Marquis, moved by his wife's innocence, decides to break off his affair with Genevieve during the hunt, sharing a farewell kiss with her at Genevieve's insistence. Christine happens to see this through a mini-telescope, and thus discovers the affair which unbeknownst to her is just ending.
  • Expy:
    • In revisiting classic French stage comedy in preparation for the film, Renoir decided to export the main quartet of characters from Alfred de Musset's 1833 play Les Caprices de Marianne (The Moods of Marianne): a Love Triangle between a married woman, her husband, and another man, plus a Sad Clown friend interacting with all of them. The friend was even named Octave in the play.
    • André Jurieux is one for Charles Lindbergh.
  • Forbidden Love: Thanks to their class differences, Christine and Octave can never have a true relationship. During a rendezvous in a greenhouse, Christine tells him, "you need someone to take care of you. I'll take care of you."
    Christine: You know, it's you I love. Do you love me?
    Octave: Yes, Christine. I love you.
    Christine: Then kiss me.
    (Octave gives her a peck on the cheek.)
    Chrstine: (protesting) On the mouth, like a lover.
    (Cue Big Damn Kiss.)
  • Foreshadowing: The Dance Macabre foreshadows both the murder of André and the looming threat of World War II.
  • The Grand Hunt: The movie has a sequence that is the most iconic rendition of this. It's set in the late thirties and the mansion has a large game reserve filled with partridges, foxes and rabbits. The party, filled with aspiring bourgeois, appoint a gamekeeper and servants to march into the reserve to chase out the animals for their sport and the result is a shocking montage sequence of live birds, foxes, rabbits hunted in shot-after-shot, killed for real on camera.
  • The Hero: Jurieux is an aviation pioneer and sees himself as a chivalric romantic hero going against tradition to rescue his beloved. Octave tries to snap him out of it to little avail:
    Octave: You have to understand, its the plight of all heroes today. In the air, they're terrific. But when they come back to earth, they're weak, poor, and helpless.
  • Hyperlink Story: Renoir's film is considered an early Trope Codifier for this. It's a movie without any real "main characters". While the plot revolves around the supposed relationship between André and Christine, the focus is equally strong on side characters like Marceau, the Marquis, Schumacher and especially Octave. Robert Altman, whose Nashville is also often considered the Trope Codifier, frequently cited this film as a heavy influence on his style.
    Robert Altman: The Rules of the Game taught me the rules of the game.
  • Hysterical Woman: Genevieve goes into hysterics after Schumacher fires a gun near her. She screams, kicks, and has to be carried up to her room.
  • I Could A Been A Contender: The famous scene where Octave stands on the steps at the rear of the mansion and mimes Christine's opera conductor father. He collapses because he realizes that he failed to pursue his dreams of being an artist and that he instead wasted his life being a lackey to other people.
  • The Ingenue: Jackie, Christine's niece, who is still in school studying pre-Colombian art. She's young and innocent, and just worldly enough to know that Andre doesn't love her a whit— but she still falls for him.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Octave assures Andre that he and Christine are just old childhood pals, and he loves her like a sister. The scene in the greenhouse reveals this isn't true, on either Octave or Christine's side.
  • Love Dodecahedron: The plot revolves on two parallel intricate love triangle plots:
    • The Marquis and Christine are married. But Andre loves Christine, and the Marquis has been cheating on his wife for a while, and their marriage was one of convenience mostly. Christine is contemplating having a real affair and escaping with André but doesn't love him and actually falls in love with Octave, who is hesitant to reciprocate her feelings because of his feelings of failure and insecurity.
    • Among the servants, Lisette (Christine's maid) is married to the gamekeeper Schumacher, but she has been unfaithful in the past, and cares more about living vicariously among her masters and her friends than being with her husband. Octave formerly had an affair with her, and in the story, the poacher Marceau, Schumacher's mortal enemy, comes and seduces his wife, leading to them chase each other.
    • Both parallel plots get resolved when in the climax, Schumacher and Marceau believe that Octave is leaving with Lisette and plan to shoot him, but in fact he's leaving with Christine. At the last moment, Octave, on Lisette's advice about not mixing outside social rules, gets cold feet and tells Jurieux to go see Christine, in the process, Jurieux gets shot and killed by Schumacher and Marceau by accident.
  • Loving a Shadow: Christine's feelings for Andre are rather muddled, even to herself. He's a splendid hero in the air; on the ground he can't take "no" for an answer; and when she's alone with him it seems she sees him mainly as a vehicle to escape her unhappy marriage.
  • Morality Kitchen Sink: No matter how unsympathetic and simplistic characters are at first glance, all of them are revealed to have Hidden Depths:
    Octave: The most terrible thing in the world is that everyone has their reasons.
  • Murder by Mistake: A jealous Schumacher guns down André thinking he's Octave.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Played for dramatic effect. The scene at the end of the hunt where the Marquis hugs his mistress becomes an image that, as Renoir noted, is both true and false. This scene is glimpsed by Christine via telescope and it is only now that she learns of an affair between her husband the Marquis. But unbeknownst to her but known to the audience, this is the moment when the Marquis breaks the relationship for good.
    • Furthermore, Schumacher recognizes his wife's coat (he'd bought it for her a couple days before) and thinks his wife is sneaking off with Octave. But in reality, Lisette loaned her coat to Christine for an evening stroll.
  • The Oner: It has quite a few. The Danse Macabre sequence is especially notable, not only for the multiple plots and actions in a single plane but the movement of Chiaroscuro while the camera pans, which is remarkable for a film made in 1939.
  • One True Love: Christine thinks this of Octave. Octave feels the same way, but unfortunately can't get beyond the class difference.
  • Sad Clown: Octave, who lets his chipper mask down later in the film and confesses that he feels like a failure in life.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: What Christine really wants but what she gives up on expecting. She doesn't love Andre Jurieux but the latter projects his desires on to her, and thinks he's a chivalrous hero rescuing a woman from a loveless marriage. In the course of the film, Christine falls in love with Octave, her Unlucky Childhood Friend, who being fat and old thinks she could do better.
  • Uptown Girl: Christine, and to a lesser extent her maid, Lisette. Lisette warns Christine's would-be paramours that her mistress is accustomed to a certain standard of living; she won't be happy with a poor man. Meanwhile, Lisette's lover and husband both realize that she'd rather work in Paris than be a wife or girlfriend in the country.