There has always been something alluring about high society. Those of us on the outside cannot help but observe, often with envious eyes, the ways those within seem to go about life. As if operating using a special set of rules, their reality seems different to our own. The problems of the world do not seem to cross the threshold of their massive country estates.
While there will always be those jockeying to be the first to criticize the world of the wealthy, the truth is that a large number of us would give anything to be a part of that sphere. The sincere have no place in that world mind you. Good intentions only lead to broken hearts. In the realm of the affluent, you either learn the game or end up like the dead animals they hunt for sport.
In Jean Renoir’s magnificent romp The Rules of the Game, we see not only the overpowering allure of high society, but the ways in which it devours the weak. Renoir sets the tone early by opening the film with the heroic aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) completing a solo trans-Atlantic flight. Despite the significance of the triumphant moment, André cannot help but lament, on live radio, that the woman he was trying to impress by conducting the flight did not show up to welcome him home. Though the woman is not mentioned by name in the interview, everyone in the upper echelon of society knows he is talking about Christine (Nora Gregor).
Unfortunately Christine is married to Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish aristocrat who has been having a three year affair with his mistress Genevieve (Mila Parély). Though Christine is conflicted over her feelings for André, she and Robert agree, at the behest of good friend Octave (Jean Renoir), to invite André to the festivities at their country estate. During their time in the country, relationships fizzle and rekindle, gossip is spread, and partners are juggled as the game of love shields them from the harsh realities of the pending World War looming in 1939.
What really struck me about The Rules of the Game was the way in which Renoir keeps all his plates balancing in the air at the same time. There is a wonderful scene set amongst a stage show, performed by Robert and some of his guests, where Renoir’s camera slowly pans back and forth around the room. Breathlessly capturing the flirtations, anger, close encounters, and overall complexities of the various relationships occurring at that moment, Renoir ensures that attention is paid to every aspect of the frame. There is always something happening in the foreground and background in his shots. Through this technique, it becomes apparent that the characters may talk a lot about love, but it is never really the goal.
Their passions are fuelled by the thrill of the chase. Those who are use to “playing the game” succeed because their claims of love have more to do with possession than actual feelings. It is the ones driven by true emotions who find it difficult to cope in this superficial world. Frankly, it is quite telling that the centrepiece of the film takes place during a sequence where Robert and his guests go hunting. While Renoir unflinchingly shows shot after shot of rabbits and birds dying mid-flight, most of the characters do not even bat an eye at the carnage. Instead they openly flirt and express their boredom with their extramarital relationships.
The nonchalant demeanour of most of the characters starkly contrasts that of the gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot). Schumacher genuinely loves his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who works as Christine’s personal maid, but the love is never reciprocated on-screen. Lisette is more infatuated with the carefree nature of the society in which she works. Observing Lisette, it is clear that she has spent too much time entrenched in the game. Even when forced to cohabit at the same county estate with her husband and the rest of the guests, she goes out of her way to avoid Schumacher. Instead, Lisette turns her attention to a blossoming affair, right under Schumacher’s nose, with a local poacher named Marceau (Julien Carette).
In many ways Lisette’s destructive actions perfectly encapsulate the alluring and shallow world that most of the characters exist in. Renoir slyly uses a tragic event to show how such superficial ideals have ramifications that impact all levels of society. While it serves as a wake-up call to audiences, one wonders if the characters in The Rules of the Game will wake up as well? Only Robert, the ringmaster if you will of this salacious circus, seems to truly understand all angles of this world he inhabits. Even then, he seems more infatuated with his musical wind up figurines than actual human interaction. Which makes sense considering how cold and wonderfully mechanical most of the relationships in the film are.
The Rules of the Game is a scathing, and immensely entertaining, commentary on high society. Through his predominantly shallow characters, Renoir manages to both lure us into this world while subsequently warning us of the dangers of it.