Last night Charles and I watched one of the films Turner Classic Movies was showing as a tribute to French films of the 1930’s: Jean Renoir’s classic Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu), which had one of the weirdest post-production histories of any major film. Renoir made it in 1939, the first production of a company he and his nephew Claude had started themselves, flush with the success of La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Bête Humaine (1938). Renoir was concerned that France’s ruling elite had become too soft, too wrapped up in its own pleasures, not strong enough to stand up to the threat from Nazi Germany, and he intended this film as an exposé of the danger he felt his country was in from the irresponsible people who were running it. He came up with a 113-minute film that was so scathing audiences actively hated it. One theatre owner even got a phone call from someone threatening to burn down his theatre if he continued to show the film. So Renoir, desperate to save his investment, kept cutting and recutting the film until it was only 86 minutes long — and when the Germans did in fact conquer and occupy France, they banned the film from further showings and destroyed all extant prints. The warehouse in which Renoir stored the negative was blown to bits in an Allied bombing raid later in the war, and the film stayed pretty much out of public view until 1959, when two researchers for the Cinemathéque Française discovered most of the missing outtakes and, with Renoir’s help (he continued to work until 1969 and died in 1979, ironically in Beverly Hills even though he’d got disgusted with the re-editing of his films by Hollywood studios and had skedaddled back to France as soon as the war was over and enough of a French film industry was restored for him to be able to work in his homeland again), pieced a 106-minute version of the film together that Renoir said contained everything but one minor scene that had been in his original cut.
I first saw Rules of the Game in the early 1970’s, when PBS was doing a much-ballyhooed series of classic movies every Friday night (including films like The Blue Angel and M) and they showed it a few weeks after Grand Illusion, which had knocked me out: the doomed romanticism, the contrast between the aristocratic characters and the proletarians (and the idea that aristocrats from various countries formed a natural brotherhood that would win out over patriotism — the “grand illusion” of the title), the finely honed acting by three excellent principals (Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim — in one of the few performances he was ever able to give for a director as talented as himself) and the superb visual atmospherics (to be expected from a director whose father, Pierre Auguste Renoir, was one of the most famous artists in history!) combined to make an awesome movie that impressed me aesthetically and touched me emotionally. So when Rules of the Game was shown on the same program a few weeks later it totally threw me — and it still does. It’s a surprisingly cold, bitter film about a decadent aristocracy — though the story takes place in France in 1939 one could readily imagine it happening just before the French Revolution (though the heroic exploit one of the central characters, aviator André Jurieux, is returning from would have had to be a battle or a trans-Atlantic expedition instead of a flight), and for that matter it’s such an intense exposé of the irresponsibility and impunity of the 1 percent it could be set in any advanced capitalist country today
The film opens with a breathless radio reporter (Lise Élina) rushing through a crowd at Le Bourget airport on her way to greet returning aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain). Jurieux has just flown solo across the Atlantic — duplicating the feat Charles Lindbergh had pulled off 12 years earlier and beating Lindbergh’s time (one wonders if Renoir, in a film intended to awaken his countrypeople to the dangers of a Nazi invasion, deliberately referenced Lindbergh in connection with the famous aviator’s well-known pro-German sympathies) — and the reporter corners him for an instant interview, expecting some sort of heroic testament to his pride in himself, his plane and his accomplishment. Instead he whines that he made the flight for a woman, who has disappointed him by not showing up at the airport to greet him, and though he doesn’t name her he’s pretty egregiously embarrassed both himself and her. She turns out to be Christine Steiner de la Cheyriest (Nora Grégor), daughter of a famous Austrian symphony conductor and wife of Marquis Robert de la Cheyriest (Marcel Dalio, who like Renoir managed to flee to the United States after France fell but never rose above minor character roles in Hollywood — his most famous U.S. film is probably Casablanca, in which he plays the croupier at Rick’s Café). Robert is having an adulterous affair of his own with Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély) but is still jealous over André’s interest in his wife. All the principals end up spending a weekend at Robert’s country estate, where they go out hunting rabbits and ducks (one irony is that the hunt is organized with the precision of a military operation — the poor rabbits didn’t stand a chance and I couldn’t help but joke, “Where is Bugs Bunny when we need him?”) and where even the servants have their own set of romantic intrigues going on: Lisette (Paulette Dubost) boasts to her boss Christine that her husband lives in Paris while she stays at the country estate where she works, which allows her the sort of “freedom” French filmmakers were allowed to celebrate while their counterparts in Hollywood were obliged by the Production Code to pretend it didn’t exist.
The pointless people in the film’s dramatis personae couple, recouple and couple again — at times it comes off as a modern-dress version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses — and when they’re not doing that they’re hunting and watching each other perform bad songs and skits in the estate’s small built-in theatre. There’s also a subplot about Schumacher (Gaston Modot), Robert’s gamekeeper — once again his German-sounding name and origins in Alsace, a contested territory France and Germany were fighting over (Germany conquered it from France in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war and France won it back in World War I), references Renoir’s stated attempt (though not particularly apparent in the film itself) to do a preparedness warning to his fellow French people — catches poacher Marceau (Julien Carette) on the estate and, rather than bust him, offers Marceau a job as his assistant. In the end [spoiler alert!] Robert and Schumacher spot André while they’re taking a night walk, and Schumacher is armed with a rifle; Robert has Schumacher shoot André dead with the idea that he’ll say as a cover story that his gamekeeper mistook the famous aviator for a prowler or poacher and shot him accidentally. The murder happens — interestingly Robert was willing to fire the shot himself but Schumacher talked his boss out of it by citing his need for what would now be called “plausible deniability” — and though a couple of local officials are skeptical, the impression is that Robert will get away with it: the 1 percent win again! Rules of the Game — ironically, like Zero Dark Thirty and Kathryn Bigelow’s previous war-on-terror movie, The Hurt Locker — is the sort of film you respect more than you actually enjoy; Renoir’s breathtaking visual sense and his ability to use the moving camera (and also his wisdom over when not to!) come through, but the film also features a maddening detachment towards the characters.
One gets the impression Renoir simply didn’t like any of his principals that much — which is why he and his co-writer, Carl Koch, inserted a character played by Renoir himself: Octave, a musician, who comes off as a sort of goofy cross-breed of Harry Langdon and Fatty Arbuckle and who for no particular reason except director’s fiat ends up with Christine at the end. Octave’s function seems mainly to be to provide an island of sanity in the middle of a cast all of whose other members are playing various degrees of craziness. The film is full of classical music, conducted by Roger Desormière (whose name for some reason grows an extra “s” in the credits) — who would later record the first complete version of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande for French EMI during the war, and Ravel’s Bolero in the mid-1950’s for the Czech Supraphon label — and the composers include someone you’ve heard of, Mozart, and someone you haven’t, Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729-1817), a French operetta composer who stopped composing in 1777 and built up a fortune under the patronage of Louis XVI’s brother Philippe, Duke of Orleans, only to lose it all during the Revolution and be saved only when the staff of the Opéra-Comique in Paris voted him a pension and he was able to make a comeback as a music teacher. Much of Rules of the Game is quite good — the money, power and sheer cluelessness of the French aristocracy are vividly dramatized and Renoir had enough of his father’s eye that despite not having access to color he’s nonetheless able to make the French landscape glow, an ironic contrast to the sordid doings that are happening against this spectacular backdrop — but given its time it’s an oddly cold film, one which ironically seems modern today because like so many of the films of our time it looks at the characters with the emotional detachment of scientists looking at their lab rats, and one aches for the depth and richness with which Renoir brought the characters of Grand Illusion (and the three-hour film of Madame Bovary he made in 1934 in all the actual locations Flaubert had described in the novel — I haven’t seen it in 40 years, and even then I only saw a two-hour edit-down, but I have vivid memories) to life. It’s an appropriately somber film but also an oddly off-putting one — and Charles’ feelings (“You really have to be in the right mood for this,” he said, indicating that he wasn’t last night”) were similar to mine, if not more so.