The Rules of the Game - Classic Film Pick
To the eyes of most modern filmgoers Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece of French Cinema may seem like nothing more than a farcical treatment of class distinctions. The film's pre-roll advises, "This entertainment, set on the eve of World War II, does not claim to be a study of manners. Its characters are purely fictitious." However, "The Rules of the Game" is a scathing satirical dissection of bourgeois mores and the use of manners to mask its frequently adulterous, and sometimes lethal, sins. That the film was banned by both French and German authorities after being edited down by distributors speaks to its not-so-subtle thematic arrows.
Son of the admired painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, writer/director/producer/actor Jean enjoyed full artistic license in making the film. He nevertheless met with fierce resistance and setbacks toward achieving his vision. Renoir loosely based his story on Alfred de Musset's "Les Caprices de Marianne." The setting is a weekend party at the mansion estate of Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). Robert's popular wife Christine (Nora Gregor) has recently been at the center of a public scandal related to the "heroic" aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain). Christine's absence at André's welcoming party for his 23-hour solo flight across the Atlantic causes the heartbroken pilot to publicly lash out at her during a live radio broadcast. The hopelessly smitten André implores his best friend Octave (delightfully played by Renoir) to gain him admittance to the La Chesnaye party despite his atrocious behavior. Christine will be in attendance. As a longtime friend to Christine and her highly regarded father, Octave obliges. The stage is set for charged romantic conflict in the estate's upstairs/downstairs world of privilege where the rules of the game are set, shattered, and reset.
Octave speaks the story's theme line when he states, "There's one thing that's terrifying in this world, and that is that every man has his reasons." As much a predictor of Hitler's approaching devastation, the line strikes at the heart of the anti-Semitic segment of the French public that went ballistic when they saw the film. They took particular umbrage at Renoir's casting of Jewish actor Marcel Dalio as the story's ostensibly wealthiest French character.
"The Rules of the Game" is both funny and dramatic. Renoir's attempt to show that no one is entirely good or bad comes under a prismatic magnifying glass during the film's coda. One of the bourgeois partygoers defends their host's best effort at bringing closure to the weekend's violent climax. The man pronounces that "La Chesnaye has class," something "that's become rare." The ethically ambiguous attitude points up a cultural environment ripe for abuse.