One of cinema's most monumental achievements, Renoir's RULES OF THE GAME passionately tackles the pre-WWII French class system, and succeeds in bringing forth the complexities and frailties underlying bourgeois civility. When aviator Andre Jurieu (Toutain) is met by his friend Octave
(director Renoir) and ecstatic reporters after a record-setting flight, he tells the radio audience that he undertook the adventure for the love of a woman--who failed to greet him at the airport. This woman, Christine (Gregor), is in the meantime preparing for an evening out with her husband,
Robert de la Chesnaye (Dalio), who knows of his wife's affair and doesn't want to lose her. Toward this end, he tries to end his relationship with his adoring mistress (Parely). Octave, the character with the clearest understanding of his environment, admits to Andre that he too cares for
Christine (although, like the others, he has difficulty distinguishing love from "friendship"), and maintains that Andre will never win her because he doesn't heed "the rules" of society. Later the two are among the guests at a weekend shooting party at de la Chesnaye's country estate (a
remarkably beautiful location evoking the works of the director's father, Auguste Renoir, and that is greatly enhanced by the gorgeous deep-focus photography). Everyone, servants included, brings along their own little drama, to be played out during and after the hunt--a brutal game complete with
its own rigid rules threatening to spill over into the domestic, "civilized" sphere.
RULES OF THE GAME has a flavor like no other film, its tone covering farce, satire, and tragedy alike. Renoir extracts great power from sequences such as the slaughter of the rabbits, an act done with the utmost cool by the aristocrats partying in the country. Later Robert displays his latest
mechanical toy for his guests, and a stunning dolly shot carries us into several planes of action, as seductions and murderous chases occur among both servants and masters. So many things here unfold with the beauty of inevitability (e.g. what Christine sees through a set of binoculars during the
hunt) and yet the film breathes surprise, improvisation, reversal. No stone is left unturned as Renoir explores the follies of love, the contradictory class relations and the casual anti-Semitism inhabiting these barren people.
The acting is great, with Dalio and Carette giving perhaps the performances of their careers as the self-indulgent host and the hilarious and sneaky poacher of rabbits and wives alike. Toutain, Parely, and Modot, meanwhile, as would-be lover, mistress, and cuckold respectively, superbly cover a
range of types frustrated by love. Dubost manages to be both very appealing and appropriately vague as the blithe and careless maid, and the actors embodying the guests and servants are perfectly cast. (Could Magnier's marvelously fading military man have inspired, if only by osmosis, Richard
Bennett's character in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS?) Renoir, as the hapless, compassionate yet insightful friend to all, proves himself a terrific actor, leaving one to regret that he didn't act more often. His Octave, the most likable character in the film, is appropriately its emotional center.
And finally Gregor (a real-life aristocrat and sometime actress who would commit suicide in the late 1940s), carefully coached by Renoir, gives perhaps her most impressive performance. Interested in her at the time, Renoir realizes her limitations and turns them into strengths. The Austrian
actress's flawed French and slightly remote quality are well-nigh perfect for the role of an outsider tossed amidst a rampaging sea of desire.
The ending is one of incredible poignancy, and if anything brilliantly highlights the film's already intense reflexivity. A labor of love and passion, RULES OF THE GAME was borne of Renoir's discontent with the complacency of his French contemporaries as the country faced occupation. Relentlessly
booed at its 1939 Paris premiere and banned by both the French and Vichy governments, the film is a classic example of audience revulsion to a perceptive critique of their world. Renoir aimed to create "an exact description of the bourgeoisie of our time" and he evidently struck a very raw nerve.
It wasn't until 1959 that the film was restored to its nearly original form at 110 minutes. The Venice Film Festival premiere of the restored version quickly put the film onto nearly every list of greatest films ever made, a position it has justly retained. Alain Resnais considered this film the
most overwhelming experience he had ever had at the cinema, and while those knowledgeable in French history may pick up on more, several viewings of this unique film (what it takes) will get you hooked too.
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- Review: One of cinema's most monumental achievements, Renoir's RULES OF THE GAME passionately tackles the pre-WWII French class system, and succeeds in bringing forth the complexities and frailties underlying bourgeois civility. When aviator Andre Jurieu (Toutain)… (more)