Like Ninotchka, Jean Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game is also set in and around Paris in the short months leading up to the Second World War. ….And….that’s about the only thing they have in common, ultimately.
Ninotchka takes a lighthearted, sentimental view of the kind of gaiety and pitching woo they claim is indicative of late 1930s French society. Renoir is a bit more critical, however; his characters are all a cosmopolitan and worldly, and most are also really jaded; and some are also completely nuts. Most of the action takes place at a house party thrown by the Chesnayes, Robert and Christine, at their estate in the country. Christine (Nora Gregor) has a fervent admirer in Andre (Roland Toutain), a stunt aviator who’s just made a successful trans-Atlantic crossing to impress Christine; while Robert has been trying to end his affair with Genevieve (Mila Parely), another single socialite. Their old friend Octave (Jean Renoir himself) is serving as agony aunt for all of them, all the while secretly harboring his own crush on Christine, whom he’s known since childhood. Octave appeases his crush by dallying with Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who’s married to Schumacher, the gamekeeper at the country estate; but when Robert spontaneously gives local poacher Marceau a job, Lisette soon starts checking him out too. That entire entangled web of people decamps to the Chesnaye’s estate for a week to celebrate Andre’s successful flight – and over the course of that week, mayhem ensues.
Now, you’d think that a lot of the mayhem would take the form of people sneaking in and out of bedrooms and merrily humping on balconies and such. But the physical affection here is surprisingly chaste; the most we see are some lingering kisses and fully-clothed embraces. But they’re enough to spark jealousy, as Christine spies on Robert and Genevieve in an embrace (not knowing that it’s intended as a farewell), and as Schumacher catches Marceau trying to canoodle with Lisette in the servants’ kitchen.
And both jealousies come to a head late in the film, during a masquerade ball thrown by the Chesnayes; the whole ball is a completely bonkers sequence with Christine trying to make both Robert and Andre jealous by flirting with another random guest as Schumacher chases Marceau through the packed party with a gun, the rest of the house staff in hot pursuit. Robert and Andre also finally have it out, Genevieve challenges Robert to finally choose between her and Christine, and all the while – and I’m not kidding about this – Octave is inexplicably blundering around in a bear costume begging people to help him unzip it. It’s a whole bunch of simmering stuff finally brought to a head, almost like if someone tried to wrap up all the plot threads in an entire season of Downton Abbey in only five minutes.
While the ball scene is funny, there’s a tragic “things are only funny until someone gets hurt” ending to the film I won’t divulge here; playing up that the ridiculous hijinks that the upper classes were indulging in were ultimately foolish and pointless, and a dangerous distraction in the runup to war. Renoir included an even more critical sequence earlier in the film, with a lengthy and unnervingly-detailed hunting sequence. The house guests are all dispatched to their various blinds and issued their guns; but instead of shooting at clay targets, they’re shooting at actual animals, with a team of servants dispatched to flush out rabbits and pheasants from the surrounding woods and relentlessly driving them into the line of fire. Just to hammer the point home, Renoir includes several shots of some of the animals being shot down, including one disturbing shot of a rabbit twitching in its death throes after being hit.
Not all the shots are this grim, fortunately. There is some striking camera work throughout; Renoir invested in some cameras with super-deep fields of focus, to let him capture as much detail in the long corridors and huge rooms at the chateau where he was filming. Fortunately, this also let him set up some shots during the ball scene with one set of characters in the foreground while another set got up to other hijinks in the background, to emphasize how all these stories were unfolding at the same time and generally add to the chaos. There’s also a short and affecting shot towards the end, where Octave is out in the gardens with Christine and is recalling a moment when he saw her father, a famous conductor, approach the podium at an orchestra; as Octave, Renoir approaches the head of a set of stairs, turning to the gardens just like his long-lost hero turned to his musicians.
We can laugh at these people, Renoir seems to be saying – in fact, we should laugh at them. But we should also be angry at their callousness and their folly, for losing sight of the good they could have done, and for where the world went when they weren’t looking. Renoir was certain that the simmering global tensions that were underway while he was filming would at some point spill over into war, and placed the responsibility for that war squarely on the carelessness of the upper classes. Gaiety and pitching woo is all very nice, but if it distracts you from taking care of the people around you and leads you into hurting others, or if it comes at anothers’ expense, that fun and frolic can suddenly turn tragic.