During the First World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German P.O.W. camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from.
A small-time thief steals a car and impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy.
Aviator André Jurieux has just completed a record-setting flight, but when he is greeted by an admiring crowd, all he can say to them is how miserable he is that the woman he loves did not come to meet him. He is in love with Christine, the wife of aristocrat Robert de la Cheyniest. Robert himself is involved in an affair with Geneviève de Marras, but he is trying to break it off. Meanwhile, André seeks help from his old friend Octave, who gets André an invitation to the country home where Robert and Christine are hosting a large hunting party. As the guests arrive for the party, their cordial greetings hide their real feelings, along with their secrets - and even some of the servants are involved in tangled relationships. Written by
THE RULES OF THE GAME takes place on the eve of World War II at an aristocratic house party at an opulent chateau on a country estate just outside of Paris where the overlapping affaires d'amour' of all social classes are observed with a keen and compassionate eye. Renoir looks to the eighteenth-century world of commedia dell'arte and Mozartian opera, and seamlessly integrates farce with tragedy, using a classical form to offer his audience a profound and multifaceted parable on the disturbing realities that underlie the veneer of contemporary French society, and which are themselves symptomatic of the nascent decline of Old World Europe.
The film opens with the arrival of a middle-class aviator, André Jurieu (Roland Toutain), who violates the unwritten `rules' of social propriety by declaring to a radio reporter his disappointment that the woman he had been courting, Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Grégor), is not present at his reception after completing a record-breaking flight across the Atlantic. His apparent indiscretion of making public his private feelings to high society diminishes his initially heroic stature and his skill with the advanced technology of aircraft is not matched by an ability to deal with people, particularly in matters of love. His careless and unmediated show of desire for a highborn lady not only transgresses the received law of proper social conduct but of traditional class distinctions as well. André's reckless pursuit of his desire, of what he could not have, caused him to behave as one beneath his class in order to rise above his station, and in the end, he was destroyed by the overlapping desire and misguided frustration of yet another man of even lesser social status and refinement. The final killing of André is echoed in Alain Resnais' LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961), when we see the mysterious `M' (Sascha Pitoëff) dispatch `X' (Giorgio Albertazzi) with a shotgun for apparently having cuckolded him with `A' (Delphine Seyrig) the year before.
Renoir's approach to mise-en-scène is especially groundbreaking. He employs seamless cutting as well as long continuous takes and tracking shots which follow characters as the move from one space to the next in a manner that anticipates the graceful circling, panning, sensuously kinetic camera of Welles, Ophüls, Godard, Resnais, Bertolucci and others. He uses deep-focus compositions, avoiding close-ups by putting many actors in the frame at the same time to suggest multiple viewpoints. The balustrades of La Colinière and the languorous tracking shots down the long corridors undoubtedly inspired those in LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD while the checkered floor suggests a harlequinade and a chess board upon which the characters maneuver themselves in relation to each other -- like the similarly checkered shuffleboard floor in Antonioni's LA NOTTE (1961) or the geometrically precise arrangement of the garden in MARIENBAD. (Interestingly enough, Coco Chanel designed the costumes for both THE RULES OF THE GAME and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD.) Like Antonioni, Renoir frames characters in architectural space, juxtaposing interior and exterior space, such as when the guests arrive at the chateau and a curtain of rain in the foreground obscures their indoor activities. Renoir's fast-moving tracking shots during the rabbit massacre are imitated in Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY with the camera ominously winding its way through the trenches of World War I. These kinds of tracking shots also serve to keep the film from becoming talky and static and to de-emphasize the importance of the dialogue in the cinematic narrative, reducing the interplay of voices to a mere din of savory bon mots' and constant stream of overlapping background chatter.
Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), Christine's husband, is fascinated with antique mechanical toy birds and other such gadgets and this fixation suggests an ambivalence toward nineteenth-century Positivism and how an abstract, theoretical, or scientific approach to life alienates people from the actual, spontaneous, concrete experience. In a way, Robert recalls von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) forever tending to his geranium in Renoir's previous film, GRAND ILLUSION (1937), as well as the character anticipates Steiner (Alain Cuny) in LA DOLCE VITA, who derives more aesthetic pleasure from listening to tape-recorded sounds of nature than hearing the real thing or `M' in LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, who prefers to continuously play God in an inscrutable matchstick game which only he can win -- with the rules of the game known only to him -- instead of dealing with messy, unpredictable human relationships.
As an aristocratic Jew, Robert de la Chesnaye could be a composite of Dalio's rich young mercantile Jew, Rosenthal, and the generous, self-sacrificing French nobleman, De Boeldieu, in GRAND ILLUSION. When a chef makes an anti-Semitic slight against Robert, revealing the bigotry of the French working classes, it evokes the controversy surrounding the Dreyfuss Affair. The General's final comment that Robert is one of a `dying breed' not only heralds the decay of aristocratic privilege but, in from the vantage point of hindsight, also seems a chilling spectre of the Holocaust. Christine's Austrian origin alludes to the looming war with Germany and seems a prediction of France's collaboration under the Vichy régime. The indiscriminate destruction of life in the rabbit and pheasant hunt sequence forecasts the waste and destruction of the war to come.
Robert's comment that he `does not want any fences' separating people seems to indicate the gradual dissolution of the old class systems and nationalistic loyalties, and indeed, of all the traditional illusions about human nature and civilization that are to be swept away by the war. The most cryptic sign is the penultimate danse macabre,' echoed in the séance and ritual journey to the realm of the dead in LA DOLCE VITA, suggesting that Renoir's superficial roundelay in THE RULES OF THE GAME is really a dance of death heralding the apocalyptic destruction of the old Europe.
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