While some critics claim 2 or 3 Things as Godard’s best film, the term “masterpiece” is more widely applied to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. It was not so acclaimed upon its release in 1939, when a prewar France was reluctant to see itself as decadent. Cinematic flops were poorly maintained in those days, so extensive reconstruction was required before the movie could be revived in 1956. It then became a critical hit, and its reputation hasn’t suffered since. Now restored with new digital technology for the 50th anniversary of its reissue, the film looks great. Whether it’s a masterpiece, however, is a matter for continued discussion.
Set primarily at a grand château, The Rules of the Game is in essence a boudoir farce. The story begins at an airfield where a pilot, André (Roland Toutain), has just landed after a record-making solo flight. He’s greeted by his bearlike friend Octave (played by Renoir himself), but not by the woman he loves, Christine (Nora Gregor). She has a simple reason for not returning his affections: She’s married, although her aristocratic husband, Robert (Marcel Dalio), doesn’t seem to mind André’s feelings for her. In fact, Robert invites the aviator to a hunting party at his estate.
There’s a downstairs counterpart to the André-Christine-Robert triangle (which is actually a rectangle, we learn later). Christine’s faithful maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), travels with her mistress from country to city, and thus rarely sees her husband, Edouard (Gaston Modot), who as gamekeeper must stay at the château. Edouard is happy when his boss, and thus Lisette, arrives for the party but upset that the easygoing Robert hires a local poacher, Marceau (Julien Carette), to work at the house. His unhappiness turns to rage when Marceau tries to poach Lisette.
Impeccably constructed but seldom thrilling, The Rules of the Game does include one startling sequence: The guests go hunting, the animals are driven toward them by beaters, and what follows is not sport but slaughter. The carnage explicitly foreshadows the death of one of the characters, who is said to have “dropped like an animal in the hunt.” Renoir’s boosters also credit him with auguring the devastation of World War II, but that seems a bit much. The war may have been inevitable, but the extent of the horror could not have been anticipated.
Thematically, the film occasionally seems ahead of its time, with jokes that turn on the racism and anti-Semitism of upper-crust France. Yet such remarks as “What’s natural these days?” and “It’s not our fault if all men are mad” are less prescient than evergreen. And Renoir was hardly the first to dramatize the idle rich, their lazy prejudices, or their empty hobbies (erotic and otherwise). Aside from the hunt sequence, the director fails to take full advantage of the medium. While he does gracefully move the camera, the result rarely looks like anything more than a filmed well-made play. The Rules of the Game has aged reasonably well, but it’s essential only to viewers who are as interested in cinema’s history as its masterworks.