Classics From Criterion: THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939)

This is a dual posting in conjunction with Kristina at Speakeasy!  Be sure to go and read her thoughts on this film here.

Way back in January I made a list of ten films that I wanted to see in 2105.  On that list was THE RULES OF THE GAME from Jean Renoir.  I had just purchased a copy at the Criterion Sale and wanted to see what made this one of the greatest films ever made, or such was the claim on the back of the box.  Well, here it is many months later and the next Criterion Sale is back on and I still hadn’t seen this film!  Luckily my Dad and Kristina both expressed an interest in watching and that gave me the push I needed!

Before we proceed please be warned that I will be talking about the end of the film.  I really want to share some thoughts about this film and the ending and thus it will be necessary to have spoilers.  There will be a warning at the point where you should stop reading if you don’t want to know!

My Dad and I settling in to watch...
My Dad and I settling in to watch…

Just outside of Paris the daring young aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) has just made a risky flight and is the toast of the city.  He is greeted at the airport by his friend Octave (Jean Renoir), but is noticeably disappointed as the only person he wanted to see there is nowhere to be found.  He is looking for his love, Christine (Nora Gregor, who is the wife of Robert, Marquis de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio).  Bitterly hurt at this betrayal, as Christine is the entire reason why he undertook his latest flight, Andre denounces her publicly on the radio.  This is overheard by Christine, her maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), and Christine’s husband.

A moment to explain the relationships.  Andre loves Christine.  Christine has been married to her husband for three years.  For about five years Robert has been seeing Geneviève (Mila Parély).  Christine’s affair with Andre is known by her husband and Lisette, but Robert’s affair is only known by Lisette.  Lisette has been married for two years to the gamekeeper of the estate, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), but is much more devoted to Christine and carries a great affection for the family friend, Octave.  Octave is Andre’s friend and is also aware of Christine’s affair with him, as well as being aware of Robert’s affair.  Octave also was friends with Christine’s father and has known Christine since she was a child.  All clear?

Christine and Robert discuss Andre’s words on the radio and profess their devotion to each other.  At this point Robert excuses himself to go and call his mistress.  He tells Genevieve that he must see her the next day.  When they meet Robert insists that he must end their relationship but Genevieve isn’t giving in that easily.  She refuses to go quietly and Robert finally decides that the best move is to invite her to a weekend at the country house with him and Christine.

Meanwhile Christine is having problems of her own.  Andre is still hurt by her refusal to come to the airport and she doesn’t know what to do.  Octave reassures her that he will take care of everything.  By that he means that he will convince Robert to invite Andre to the country home for the weekend, inferring that Andre and Genevieve can meet and start a relationship together thus making everyone happy.  And so it is the Octave, Christine, Robert, Lisette, Genevieve, Andre, and a large assortment of friends and relations head off to the country for a weekend.  While checking the grounds one day, in an attempt to get rid of rabbits, Schumacher and Robert find Marceau (Julien Carette).  Marceau is a poacher and he has come to check his snares.  Schumacher is all in favor of throwing Marceau out on his ear but Robert has taken a liking to him and decides to promote Marceau to domestic and get him a job at the country house.  In order to rid the estate of rabbits and other pests, Robert holds a “hunt” in which very little hunting takes place.  In fact it is mostly a “shoot”.  Schumacher and other servants serve as beaters and drive the animals out of the forest into the waiting gun sights of the guests.  It is a massacre of all sorts of wildlife and the guests shoot until they lose interest, at which point they simple walk away leaving the carcasses as someone else’s problem.  It is on the way back to the house that Christine first sees evidence of the affair that exists between Robert and Genevieve.

At this point you will most likely want to stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers!  

The festivities of the weekend continue at the house, complete with a masquerade ball and several skits put on by various guests.  At the same time Lisette is running around with her newest love interest, Marceau, much to her husband’s dismay.  And Andre has decided that he wants Christine to leave Robert and come away with him.  Christine has decided that she wishes to declare her love for Andre, though she instantly regrets it and doubts her own feelings.  While Andre and Robert come to fisticuffs over Christine, she slips out into the garden with Octave.  Lisette meanwhile is chasing after her husband as he tries to shoot Marceau through party guests.  Andre and Robert stop fighting long enough to work together to deal with Genevieve who has become hysterical over the fact that EVERYONE loves Christine and NO ONE seems to love her, not even Robert.  That and she is slightly drunk.  Once Genevieve is safely packed off to her bed, Andre and Robert talk like men and Robert gives his blessing to Andre.

Outside Octave and Christine talk about many things, eventually making their way to the greenhouse.  Once inside Christine and Octave admit their love for each other and make plans to run away together.  Unbeknownst to them, they are being watching.  Schumacher and Marceau, who have both been fired for their parts in the evening’s gunplay, are hiding in the bushes.  They have mistaken Christine for Lisette, as she is wearing her maid’s cloak.  They see Octave run off to the house, to gather his coat and hat and get Christine’s coat so that they might run off together, and decide to wait until he comes back.  Schumacher has decided that he must kill Octave rather than allow him to have who he presumes is his wife.  Once in the house Octave is stopped by Lisette who seems to know what he is trying to do.  While he is talking with her, Andre appears and demands to know where Christine is.  Resigned to his fate to always be the friend and never the lover, Octave tells Andre to go to the greenhouse.  Before he goes Octave gives him his coat to keep him warm.  Andre runs off into the night and is gunned down by Schumacher.  When the truth of the tragedy is revealed Octave and Marceau drift away into the night, shocked by what has transpired.  While Christine is escorted into the house, Robert makes a brief speech and concludes that they will all take their leave tomorrow and remember the young man who died in a tragic accident, when the gamekeeper mistook him for a poacher.

There are so many things to talk about with this film.  There is the fact that this film was widely disliked and banned after its release.  There is the fact that it was almost lost entirely due to the war, the bans, and the bombing.  There is also the troubled and difficult shooting and casting that took place.  Days go by and I still find myself thinking about this film.

Renoir wanted to make a film about the attitudes he saw in the people around him before the start of World War II.  Renoir said “…what is interesting about this film, perhaps, is the moment when it was made. It was shot between Munich and the war, and I shot it absolutely impressed, absolutely disturbed by the state of mind of a part of French society, a part of English society, a part of world society. And it seemed to me that a way of interpreting this state of mind, to the world hopefully, was not to talk of that situation, but tell a frivolous story…”  This is a film about people who are so wrapped up in their own lives, so deeply selfish and self-absorbed, that they can not even begin to comprehend the catastrophe that is approaching.  No mention is made of the war in this film.  No mention is made of any tensions in Europe.  All that is mentioned in this film are the stories and relationships of these people and their friends.  All their lives take place in a bubble, little games played by little people following rules that have no place in the greater world.  And perhaps that is the point that Renoir was making.  At one point in the film a character says “…Put an end to this farce!” and I almost feel that this was Renoir himself saying this, a plea into the ether hoping someone would hear and take notice.  There is something farcical about the worries and concerns of these rich men and women with the approaching darkness from Germany.  How can they care about such silly things as parties and affairs when so much more important things are happening?  But then maybe this is why the film was so poorly received upon release and why it was banned in France and later Germany.  The same refusal to see the truth that is present in these characters, the same inability to look outside of themselves and see the world was also present in the movie going public of 1939 and Europe.

The hunting scene is probably the most famous in the entire movie.  While some people believe that it symbolizes the killing to come during the war,  I tend to think as some others do that the scene is in fact a representation of the callousness and lack of compassion and awareness present in the characters of the film.  The people have a sense of entitlement so naturally why wouldn’t the animals be brought to them to kill?  Why should they have to go out and find the game?  Why should they have to try?  And not only is it the slaughter that is so startling, but the lack of concern for the dead animals when they are done.  While other hunters would go and gather the carcasses for food or furs, these people simply turn and walk away leaving them there to rot.  This scene appeared to be to be recalled in Andre’s demise.  Like the animals chased by the beaters, Andre is blindly led to his doom running full force into the waiting gun of the gamekeeper.  And his death and body are treated with the same careless and cavalier attitude as the dead rabbits, squirrels, and pheasants.  No one is any more concerned for him than they were for the vermin they murdered that morning.  But then again, he was just a poacher wasn’t he?  Trying to take Robert’s wife from him and worst of all, not following the rules of the game.

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6 thoughts on “Classics From Criterion: THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939)

  1. Kristina July 10, 2015 / 6:14 pm

    Great review, we picked up on a lot of the same things and images, that message is so strong, of denial of what’s coming and the mistakes that caused it. And yet for the depressing parts it’s still so enjoyable to watch! You really capture the complex soap opera romances here 🙂 This is definitely a great film (I wish all Great Films were this fun) that’ll be fun to go back to. Thanks for the invite to join in, I’m really glad I saw this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging July 10, 2015 / 6:16 pm

      Thanks for joining! We will have to do it again soon! Great minds obviously think alike! I agree, this is a really fun and enjoyable film even with the darker elements and the mindset that caused Renoir to make it. Maybe that is part of what makes it such a great film!

      Like

  2. aaronwest July 10, 2015 / 8:17 pm

    I agree with Kristina that you do a good job of laying out the convoluted relationship. Just seeing it outlined like that reaffirms Renoir’s point in the film, that people are so absorbed with these petty matters that they lose sight of the larger and dangerous threat, which you wisely observed is never even acknowledged in the film.

    I’ve found the hunting scenes to have multiple meanings. I do agree with many that think Renoir was basically saying that this was a simulation of how the war would play out, that Britain and France were essentially handing themselves over to the Germans so that they would be easy prey. It is difficult to analyze many aspects of this film because we have the benefit of hindsight, and the meaning we take from these scenes cannot be separated from our opinions about the war. Renoir was clearly trying to send a message, but the great thing about art is it can be evaluated beyond the author’s intent. This film has lived on, and rightfully so, not only because it was a fantastic cinematic achievement, but it is also a document about how people felt on the brink of war.

    Terrific review to both of you. I may be biased (look at my avatar), but also a terrific choice in subject!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging July 10, 2015 / 8:30 pm

      Thanks for reading! You are totally right that this film can have multiple meanings to each person who watches it! Thanks for your comment! Great avatar BTW!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. nitrateglow January 6, 2016 / 10:12 pm

    Rented this from the university this year and just loved it. Watched it twice. Renoir is swiftly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers the more I watch of his work.

    Liked by 1 person

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