During the First World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German POW camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from.
A charismatic thief makes friends with a bankrupt baron who comes to live in the thief's slum. Meanwhile the thief seeks the love of a young woman, who is held emotionally captive by her slumlord family.
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
historically essential but not entirely satisfying
At the risk of seeming heretical, I have to confess that having finally seen this film (at the American Museum of the Moving Image in NY), I found it disappointing to some degree.
I can appreciate the provocative candor with which Renoir has created this satire/indictment of a society which has lost its moorings. I think I'm capable of seeing what he was trying to do, and respect the goals he seems to be aiming for. I can also appreciate much of the acting (Nora Gregor seems especially luminous), the dramatic/narrative organization, the witty structural recurrences of things like the old man's "they're a dying race" lines and indeed the overall enormity of Renoir's ambitions. I like what he set out to do, and in most ways I was "on his side" as I watched the film.
And yet -- I find that it doesn't quite all add up for me. Most surprisingly the film seems to be without a very distinct visual style style beyond its overall professionalism. By 1939, the work of Hitchcock, Murnau, Lang, Flaherty, Lubitsch, Eisenstein, Whale, and others had already rampantly shown the potentials of visual style and expressive composition even in the talkie era. Renoir himself had already achieved a masterful job of subtextual visual strategy and meaningful compositions a few years earlier in his powerful GRAND ILLUSION. But that visual confidence is no way in evidence here. Is it because of how many different cinematographers there were?
I'm sure some will point out this or that scene and all the interesting objects within it, a certain fluidity of camera-work, intelligent use of depth-of-focus, interesting overhead shots in the hallway as people headed off to bed at the château, or some of the shots in the kitchen, the hunt or even the almost surreal party .
I will grant you that there is there are some fairly impressive shots now and then, with perhaps the opening scene of the reporter on the runway the most "showy." But after one viewing I have yet to be convinced that there is any distinctive visual personality to the picture. Professionalism, yes. The occasional interesting shot, yes. But the visual creativity or a bravura sense of cinematic identity from the director? I thought not.
But the underlying ideas are what is most important in RULES OF THE GAME, and I give Renoir plenty of credit for successfully exploring them in such a complex way. There are a lot of characters, and we have a strong sense of who they all are once up at the château (contrast this with GOSFORD PARK, where there are a couple of random young men among the upper class whose identities are still a bit obscure when the film is over).
Renoir seems to be balancing on a difficult tightrope of effectively telling a complex story with characters who are not truly meant to be "real" but rather to some degree caricatures in a larger satirical whole. This is perhaps the greatest ambition of the film, and while I'm not convinced it really works, I'm impressed with the diligent thoroughness of how he has attempted to construct it. Much has been said and written about how the public turned against the film when it was released, but I wonder if the real culprit was that the film seems a bit unmoored from any specific context from which an audience could approach it. It has numerous elements of farce, but it is not a farce. It has very witty lines and eventually an overabundance of buffoonery and implausible behavior (from nearly everyone concerned by the last reel or two), and yet it is not a comedy. During the hunt it juxtaposes shots of servants and gentry with rabbits and pheasants, and you understand the irony intended, but that scene, for example, seems a bit meandering in execution. Is it a fable? Not really that either. I'll admit that a work of art need not comfortably fit into any category, yet one still feels a bit bewildered by what Renoir expects you to make of this narrative, or how he expects you to process the characters.
For while certain things work beautifully and other things seem contrived, I often felt caught in a structure where Renoir was deceiving me into trying to relate to the characters as real people (and many of the fine performances help that tremendously), only to pull out the rug and say, in essence, "haha! I have a satirical agenda here which requires that the integrity of these characters is expendable." Yes, one could say that it is the paradox of that rug-pulling which represents the genius of the film. No one is immune to the absurdity at the heart of this script. But ultimately, I suspect that I either want the characters to seem genuine, OR I want the satire or farce to be the point. In this film, neither is exactly true.
I would see this film again, because I agree with others posting here that there is enough in it to warrant additional viewings. It is undeniably an essential landmark in the history of cinema. But I would also agree with those who say it is overrated. For me it lacks the honesty AND the visual distinction of GRAND ILLUSION, and also, despite its ambitions, lacks the basic humanity at the core of something like Bergman's SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT. Admittedly this film came first, but when you have a director with the visual pedigree, philosophically and genetically, of Jean Renoir, I expect a more satisfying sense of the auteur as filmmaker, not merely as writer and actor. Where this picture is concerned, Renoir succeeded best as a thinker, and secondly as its writer and as a director of actors. In terms of control of its visual sense and aesthetic as cinema, I'm not sure he did quite as effective a job as he might have.
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