The Rules of the Game (1939) was a critical and box office disappointment upon its release despite the fact that it was the most expensive French production ever at the time. In fact, the French censors banned it on the grounds that it was “having an undesirable influence over the young.” It wasn’t until after World War II that the film was rediscovered and a more modern audience could see it for it was: a masterpiece.
Aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) has just completed a record setting flight, but when he lands, the only thing on his mind is his disappointment that Christine (Nora Gregor), the wife of aristocrat Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), is not there to greet him. Despite her marriage, he is in love with her. Robert himself in involved in an affair with Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély) though he is trying to get out of it. André gets an invitation to Robert’s home from his good friend, Octave (Jean Renoir), where there is a large hunting party gathering. However, Octave himself is in love with Christine. More and more characters come into play: aristocrats, maids, servicemen, each involved in an intricate love web that all comes exploding in on itself at this weekend gathering. At the end of the night, André is dead, shot by a jealous groundskeeper who thought he was the man sleeping with his wife, and Christine belongs to no one.
The film stands as a commentary of the upper social class of Europe at the time. The aristocracy looks down on their servants and thinks little of them, using them for their own games, while that same lower class flails in a crumbling society, the lure of an outbreak of war pending. The director, Jean Renoir, had remarked that he believed it was the film’s candor about the social lives of the economic classes that drew such heavy criticism, that audiences were not ready for the truth presented in his film. The truth of the narrative is that the rich ignored the qulams of the lesser people, so indulging themselves with their own frivolous romances, that they failed to see the rising seeds of conflict that erupted into another world war.
Octave, played by Renoir himself, often remarks during the film, “Everyone has his reasons.” There is no central antagonist in the film. Indeed, the viewer is able to relate to just about everyone. All the characters have motives and goals against which they must compete within the rules of their society. They are all trapped in the rules of the game, a game of social hierarchy where the poor stay poor, the rich become richer and desires and lusts are structured according to placement. The Rules of the Game may hold many parallels to modern times, maintaining its relevance.
What the film ultimately gives the audience is a wide tapestry of European social existence. There are moments of comedy and drama and action, the dialogue is witty and the multitude of characters are interesting and involving. Much like his father, Auguste Renoir, a leading impressionist painter, Jean Renoir utilizes his canvas and presents an intricate glimpse into a timeless story.
At the film’s conclusion, André lies dead, the result of mistaken identity. He is a victim of someone who tried to transcend social ranking and become something more. He sought a married woman, a woman of higher class and even flew across the ocean to prove himself to her, but it does not matter. He is a victim of the rules of the game, a game that was rigged in Europe at the time and, with its eerie parallels to modern times, may still be to this day.