Censored upon its 1939 release, its negatives destroyed by Allied bombing then reconstructed 20 years later to rapturous acclaim, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) boasts a backstory as wild as the “dramatic fantasy” billed on its title card. Set during a weekend soiree at the estate of Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), an anxious aristocrat wed to Bavarian-bred Christine (Nora Gregor), the film lampoons both the bourgeois guests and the scrappy staff employed to serve them. Will Christine ditch Robert for the pilot André (Roland Toutain)? Will Robert keep sleeping with the snooty Geneviève (Mila Parély)? Should Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Christine’s devoted maid, cheat once again on her boorish husband, Schumacher (Gaston Modot)? Wryly dubbed a “study of manners,” this movie is, more accurately, a madcap send up of those who have none.
So why abide by The Rules today? For laughs and lessons in recurring history. Consider the flurry of class-fueled strikes and riots in the age of Macron, or the ever-deepening chasm between rich and poor Americans, the rising cynicism toward the institution of marriage. As a film instructor who has seen the movie on the big screen at least a dozen times — on 35mm — every time it still feels fresh, and every time teenagers are laughing. Every time, I am at once buoyed by its shenanigans and sobered by its prewar backdrop. And every time, something novel flits from within the frame.
Recently restored to 4k digital, Renoir’s masterpiece has possibly never looked better, while adhering to the director’s original vision as much as possible. The film’s visual details and multiple planes of action are crisp and clear: the perspiration on André’s brow when he lands his record-setting flight, the circles under Christine’s eyes as she hears him on the radio, the paisley pattern on the scarf with which Robert nervously blots his face, the leopard spots on Geneviève’s fur chapeau. But the lens also turns toward the kitchen staff folding tablecloths in the back of the shot, to the servants beating trees with sticks to rouse the rabbits the rich will hunt, and to the polka-dotted tie of Marceau (Julien Carette), an indigent poacher whose animal traps are as quick as his hands on Lisette.
With a camera that moves as promiscuously as the naughty cast, Rules both goads and rewards our inner voyeur — trailing characters through a quiet corridor, empty terrace, or frog-serenaded greenhouse. The audience is complicit in their follies even as we are shocked at their extremes. Between its overlapping dialogue and barbed bon mots, it’s no wonder that Rules was the blueprint for everything from Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2002) to more recent “caviar cope” fare like The Menu.
For a movie with no sex, Rules still manages to be mostly about horny French folks — the women as much as (if not more than) the men. While upstairs the cognoscenti are philandering, dueling, and pillow-tossing, the servants downstairs are hardly less shameless. They gossip, flirt with, and side-eye each other at their crowded dinner table. Interacting with the rich, they are rarely humble; the rich, in turn, rarely take offense. When Lisette scoffs at Christine’s lipstick for its “unnatural” hue, her madame responds, “What’s natural these days?” and they laugh in falsetto unison.
“Today everybody lies,” laments Octave (Renoir), a portly hanger-on to the haute monde. “Pharmaceutical fliers, governments, the radio, the movies, the newspapers. So why shouldn’t simple people like us lie as well?” Unlike so many current films and television shows that skewer the hyper-rich and exalt the hoi polloi as naturally virtuous, Rules never suggests that any class demographic is intrinsically better — or worse — than any other. Rather, the rich simply get away with bad behavior more often — much of which inevitably springs from gross naivete and entitlement that a life of pampering practically guarantees. “So I’m not to blame for everything?” Christine jests early on, after making yet another fatal faux pas.
By the last act, when things get deliciously dark, the film sticks to its comic core. “It breaks my heart, but I can’t expose my guests to your firearms,” Robert informs Schumacher, firing him when the groundskeeper disrupts their party with a jealous manhunt. “It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives.” Audiences are meant to laugh, but not without dread. Lawless wealth — then as now — makes a marvelous farce of us all.
The Rules of the Game 4k restoration is screening at the Portland Museum of Art (7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine) on February 10, The Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee) on February 15 and 19, and other select theaters.
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