Monday, August 8, 2011

#367. The Rules of the Game (1939)

Directed By: Jean Renoir

Starring: Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost

Trivia:  Director Jean Renoir recut the film numerous times, due to poor initial reception and damage to the negatives during World War II

I think it’s safe to say that director Jean Renoir was... well... "surprised" by the initial audience reaction to his now-classic film, The Rules of the Game. On July 11, 1939, The Rules of the Game premiered at the Paris Colisée, with Renoir and other members of the cast and crew in attendance. Halfway through the film, the audience started to whistle and boo, with one patron actually attempting to set his seat on fire as a form of protest! 

While it may seem harmless today, for an audience in pre-WWII France, this film was downright scathing. The mood in Europe was growing darker by the day, and France chose to shield itself behind a patriotic furor. The Rules of the Game dared to show a French aristocracy that was complacent, even somewhat bumbling in nature. It was not how the French saw themselves, and certainly not how they wanted the rest of the world to see them. 

The majority of the action in The Rules of the Game (the French title of which is La Règle du jeu) is set during a weekend hunting party at the château of Robert de la Cheyneist (Marcel Dalio) and his wife, Christine (Nora Gregor). Among their guests is André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), an aviator who has just set the world speed record for crossing the Atlantic Ocean, a feat he accomplished primarily to impress Christine, whom he loves. 

Other visitors include Geneviève (Mila Parély), Robert’s mistress, and Octave (played by director Renoir himself), a friend of André who speaks to Christina on Andre’s behalf, even though he is secretly in love with her himself. 

Along with the upstairs shenanigans, we follow the exploits of the downstairs staff, including Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Christina’s flirtatious chambermaid, who is married, quite unhappily, to Edouard (Gaston Modot), the estate gamekeeper. As indiscretions build and tempers flare, a relaxing weekend in the country quickly becomes 48 hours of unbridled chaos! 

The Rules of the Game is a lighthearted, witty, whimsical film. Even so, it’s easy to see why some audience members mistook it for a direct assault on the French aristocracy. When thousands of people, among them government ministers and members of the press, show up to congratulate André on his record-breaking flight, the suddenly-famous pilot expresses only disappointment that Christine is not among the throng welcoming him home. In frustration, the new ‘hero’ acts childishly, and refuses to accept the accolades being heaped upon him. After all, it wasn’t for the glory of France that he flew across the Atlantic, but the love of a single woman. 

Marriage also takes one on the chin in this film as Renoir shows, in great detail, the little regard this particular branch of French society pays to the vows of marriage. Moments after Christine has told her husband, Robert, that she trusts him completely, Robert rushes off to call his mistress, Geneviéve, arranging to meet her the very next morning. 

While Renoir didn’t initially intend to spark controversy with The Rules of the Game, he did admit, much later, that one of the film’s goals was to expose a society he believed was “rotten to its core”. Unfortunately, for that particular audience in 1939, the story hit too close to home, and as Renoir learned, current events sometimes make it difficult for people to recognize the reflection peering back at them in the mirror.

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