in Criterion Month

The Rules of the Game (1939)

Is it intimidating to write about one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time after seeing it for the first time? Nah. How many great film critics and historians have already delved into the deepest regions of Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic The Rules of the Game? A lot. So I don’t need to say anything at all. I could easily have read a review by Vincent Canby or Pauline Kael, took their opinions on the film (shared by many) and wrote a review that would be nothing but paragraph after paragraph of agreeing with them. You’d know if I read a Roger Ebert review if I brought up how good the film looks on Laserdisc. But I think I have something unique in my low stakes take on this 20th Century darling. Unique in that I just thought it was good. Not great. Just pretty good. Come at me all you film critic zombies.

The Rules of the Game was the film in this year’s Criterion draft I was looking forward to the least. My number one concern was that it would be a boring, pretentious French film. Which although the film is indeed French I wouldn’t say it’s pretentious. Yes, it chronicles the interactions of the upper class but not in a way that’s obtuse or not relatable to your average Joe six-pack, or in this case your average Jean Winebox (great stage name, BTW). I could easily imagine this being an American film with Cary Grant. It’s a comedy. It takes some dark turns but never into full-on arthouse bullshit territory.

My second concern was that my knowledge of the film’s place in the great pantheon of cinema would influence or sway my take on the film. It’s easy to agree with a popular opinion. I think I was able to dodge that bullet as well, unlike so many of my furry friends at the Marquis de la Chesnaye country estate. Breaking down the film I find it’s best to take a look at every character relationship and how it sets the mood for the rest of the film.

– An Aviator named Andre (Roland Toutain) returns to France after a solo Cross-Atlantic flight. Proclaims his love for a woman named Christine (Nora Gregor) only to be told by his bro Octave (Jean Renoir) that she is married.

– Octave also likes Christine.

– Christine is married to Robert, the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). Who if you can’t tell by his name is rich.

– Robert is having an affair with a woman named Genevieve (Mila Parely).

– Christine’s maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), is married to Schumacher (Gaton Modot) a gamekeeper at Robert’s country estate.

– Lisette is flirtatious towards a poacher named Marceau (Julien Carette). Schumacher is pissed.

– All of these characters find themselves at Robert’s country estate. Deviousness ensues.

Man, all those hookups. It’s like all of Friends condensed into one long episode. It’s this reason that the film was frowned upon in its time. The film was too tawdry and scandalous. Which is hilarious because the film is quaint by today’s standards. Can you imagine if they’d had When Harry Met Sally? in pre-WWII France? They would have fleed the country. Cause of the movie. Not Nazi reasons. That joke was a misfire.

At the estate, all the rich people do rich people things. They drink and eat and drink and laugh. There’s like a talent show? Or some kind of display where guests dress as fantastical characters and creatures and prance around on a stage. My favorite of these moments being a skeleton dance to Camille Saint-Seans “Danse Macabre” my favorite classical piece of all time.

There’s one activity in the film that I wasn’t having. In a famous or infamous sequence, the guests go out onto the estate grounds and hunt an array of rabbits and birds. The kicker? It’s all real. Renoir had hundreds of animals shot and killed for this sequence which I know has its purpose in the narrative but damn, I don’t like watching animals die. I’m not comfortable with killing animals for voyeuristic purposes and I had to turn the film off for a while.

As a break, I watched an episode of Stripperlla on some shady website. It was meh, though provocative and Maurice Lamarche is great as Chief Stroganoff… Wait… “Chief Stroganoff?” Like “Beef Stroganoff”. Never mind the show is brilliant. Where was I?

After my sabbatical, I watched the rest of the film feeling a bit off. If there was anything that drew me back in it’s the performances. I liked the pep of Lisette and emotional weight of Christine. Though my favorite character was Octave played by Jean Renoir himself. There’s a bumbling nature to him that’s lovable but he can still handle the heavier moments too. Also, he kind of looks like a young Lou Piniella. Which I like.

The two male leads blur together. I felt like one was just a smaller version of the other. Though I was surprised to hear Marcel Dalio later had a small role in Casablanca. Which you may remember from its 1996 reimagine as the film Barb Wire starring Pamela Anderson (voice of Stripperella). Otherwise, it’s a solid cast that feels more like the cast of play than a film. Which I guess is a compliment.

The Rules of the Game is noted among other things for its advanced visual techniques and intricate camera work. Honestly, I didn’t notice that until the film’s night-scenes. Glowing lights against a pitch black rural landscape. It’s dreamlike. These advanced production techniques along with the film’s pricey location made The Rules of the Game the most expensive French film made at that point, and it doesn’t look cheap.

The film was met with a lukewarm response upon its release. It sounds like a great deal of that came from upper-class French circles. You see, a lot of these French fat cats were also Nazi sympathizers and didn’t take nicely to Jean Renoir making fun of them. I think it was Good Charlotte who said best when they said “Lifestyles of the rich and the famous. They’re always complaining. Always complaining.”

So that’s my take on The Rules of the Game It’s an enjoyable character piece with nice shots. It also makes me horribly depressed and I have a short attention span. There ya have it. The least and most controversial take on all in one tidy package. Or as they say in France “Paquet”.