September 13, 2012
The Rules of the Game (1939)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Jean Renoir

What it's about. A much-heralded comedy and drama concerning the romances of the upper class and servants at a posh country estate. A French language film set in France and released just two months before the German invasion of Poland that plunged Europe into World War II.

André (Roland Toutain) is an aviator whose transatlantic flight makes him a national hero. But he is unhappy because his mistress Christine (Nora Gregor) won't see him. Christine is married to the wealthy and nonplussed Robert (Marcel Dalio), who shouldn't mind her affair since he is having one with Geneviève (Mila Parély).

Octave (Jean Renoir) is a burly friend to both André and Christine. He decides to help André by encouraging Christine to throw a big party and invite André. Other guests include Geneviève, Christine's attractive neice Jackie (Anne Mayen), a general, and various other wealthy socialites.

Christine's loyal and pretty servant is Lisette (Paulette Dubost). She has an unlikely marriage to hotheaded gamekeeper servant Schumacher (Gaston Modot). She begins an affair with newly hired servant Marceau (Julien Carette). The jealous Schumacher finds out and chases Marceau about the house with a rifle during the party, unwittingly providing an entertaining diversion for the guests. Schumacher's reckless actions eventually lead to tragedy.

How others will see it. The Rules of the Game was poorly received upon initial release, perhaps due to excessive expectations, or the film's implication that the French are decadent wastrels. After the Nazis occupied France, they destroyed copies, and the film was believed lost.

But prints eventually emerged from various sources, and by 1956, the film was principally restored. By that time, politics had changed, and the film was readily accepted as something it likely never was: a condemnation of a nation and society unprepared for war with Germany. It has since often been cited as one of the "best films of all time," though less frequently than a prior Renoir movie, The Grand Illusion (1937).

Not everyone greatly admires the film, however. At the user ratings are very high overall at 8.0 out of 10, but there is a decline with advancing age of the viewer, along with a sizeable gender gap. Women over 45 only grade it 5.0, probably annoyed with the promiscuous behavior of Lisette and the indecision of Christine, who appears to be in love with three different men at the same time. There's also the matter of Schumacher's premeditated murder, which apparently goes unpunished.

How I felt about it. Internet discussion of the film is fixated with the title. My interpretation is that the rules of the game permit affairs but not to the extent that they end marriages. This was the message of Tolstoy's novel "Anna Karenina." Affairs destroy lives when they exceed the boundaries of discretion.

Does the film condemn the French upper class? Not exclusively, since the servants are also making fools of themselves. In any event, the scenarios are timeless, and have nothing to do with the massive German war machine poised to conquer Europe. The lead character is Austrian, apolitical, and the heroine of the film.

We do wonder why Robert is so fascinated with mechanical music machines when he is sufficiently wealthy to have women at his beck and call. Perhaps he feels above such things. Octave, on the other hand, seeks to charm everyone yet maintain his status as an unconnected bachelor.

There is an undeniable depth to the characters and dialogue. What is missing is credible motivation. I can understand why Marceau is attracted to Lisette. I can't understand why André flies across the Atlantic at great risk to impress Christine when she couldn't care less.