This five-star review will surprise no one who has either watched "The Rules of the Game" or is fairly acquainted with greatest-of-all-time film lists. Routinely occupying the top 10, this 1939 French masterpiece from director Jean Renoir ("Grand Illusion") belongs to that elusive breed of classics (like "Sunset Blvd." and "All About Eve") that hits you, from start to conclusion, with the immediate force of its greatness.
"Citizen Kane," "8 1/2," and "The Seven Samurai," inarguably, should be huddled near the top of the finest works. But a sizeable portion of their high artistic value is buried in technicalities that necessitate frame-by-frame analysis, script examination and an almost academic comprehension of film to fully appreciate. Gregg Toland's cinematography in "Citizen Kane," without question, is spectacular, but a viewer should not be faulted for initially overlooking its merit.
"The Rules of the Game" is not without stellar craftsmanship to be sure. The camerawork is remarkable for its patient gaze and skill at capturing so much teeming activity. This film is simply so much more than that — a comedic evisceration of bourgeois culture, a slyly simultaneous celebration and lament of man's boundless capacity for the absurd and ultimately, an exemplar of layered cinema where simplicity and intricacy magically collide to form, not just amazing cinema, but a heady experience.
At its outset, "The Rules of the Game" proposes to not be a "study of manners." It's difficult to square this statement with the film's insistent preoccupation on class interplay, the ephemeral mindset of elites and, more colloquially conspicuous consumption. If this is a false posture, then Renoir has never been adequately credited for its genius complexity.
Regardless, French high society is on display here. The energetic plotline springs from a massive faux pas committed by Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain), a French pilot and playboy who has recently completed a trans-Atlantic flight. During a live radio broadcast, Jurieux frets that his mistress, the glamorous Christine de la Cheyniest (Nora Gregor), has not greeted him upon his return. This affair produces scandalous ripples among the chatty high brows of Paris because Christine is the wife of Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), a highly venerated man of wealth. To avert stickier potentialities for confrontation (a signature "rule of the game"), Robert arranges a hunting weekend at his country chateau, where all the elites, including Andre, will congregate to submerge the controversy in booze, fine dining and almost surreal forms of entertainment.
The setup is brilliantly contained in domestic confines, which heightens every waking moment's opportunity for a class-fueled eruption and elite butting of heads. This sort of pandemonium inevitably ensues, starting off as lighter-fare instances of farce that gradually chill with a darker bent. It's a seamless transition that doesn't announce itself explicitly, but be on guard for it and revel in being quietly duped by the beguiling tonal arc.
The collection of disparate character types, from lowly servants to deluded free riders to the established upper-echelon, is one of the most absorbing and vivid casts in all of film. The performances boast an expressive, colorful and almost hyperactive quality that betrays how consequential each character imagines his or her plight to be. Gregor is splendid as the infinitely elegant Christine. It's thrilling to watch this charmed veneer crumble and reveal her inner-workings — a confused, helpless and pitifully wounded foreigner who can repeatedly utter "I love you" with an astonishing ignorance of its implications. Toutain and Dalio also strike perfect notes as individuals incapable of parting from their desires even while not wanting to create offense in the process. Indeed, the scenes that depict the two in friendly reconciliation after Jurieux has openly intimated his adulterous intentions border on ridiculous. But it's obvious that Renoir is operating from a basis planted in reality.
Renoir himself comes to be the most memorably rich character of the cast as the portly Octave. He's an unmitigated failure, a fool for Christine and a dreamer who shrouds his bruised melancholy in a gregarious, theatrical and inviting disposition. But he leads a life so hollow that he passes his days desperately aspiring to the sort of vacant satisfaction that the true elites extract from theirs.
Renoir's work as Octave, in particular, pinpoints the enthralling trick that nearly the whole of this cast accomplishes with their presence. Here are actors being tasked to portray characters that make one extended performance out of their entire existence. In this regard, "The Rules of the Game" is the ultimate in meta-theater, where there is a dual layer of acting at work. Renoir's thesis suggests that life for this privileged lot is a perpetual farce, masquerade, tragedy and comedy, all dictated by the underlying but overwhelming "rules of the game." Even the domestic servants can't evade its grasp at times, as wonderful characters such as the poacher, Marceau, (Julien Carette) become entrapped in clashes of need and propriety.
Despite its unassuming presentation, "The Rules of the Game" actually boasts one of the most fantastically busy and ambitious scripts in film history. Like few others, it maximizes every stretch of dialogue and interaction for all of the bustle that it can muster. Rare is a quiet span and rarer are moments that lack the shockwaves of dueling plot strands. Everything is interrelated. Octave's collapse into self-loathing colors how Christine reacts to the advances of Julien, which alters Robert's treatment of his own nagging mistress. The effect is less labyrinthine than frenetic. These aren't complexities that need to be unraveled by a keen mind as much as they're whirlwind motions that require an observant eye. Regardless, it is a script that fascinates with its depth and sense of balance.
When the storyline climactically shifts from its more fetching origins to a sobering finale, it's fascinating how the film's hazy, dreamscape aura persists despite the coldness of tragedy. A complicated murder transpires, but Robert publicly dismisses the event as the death of a poacher, something clearly not worth wrangling over. Life would continue on thereafter much as it did before, without the taint of reality puncturing high culture's bubble-like existence. This scene most dramatically crystallizes Renoir's blistering critique of this indulgent, ephemeral lifestyle, where nothing is of consequence and even death becomes an innocuous inconvenience.
Run, don't walk, to see "The Rules of the Game." It's absolutely phenomenal.
Grade: 5 out of 5