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The exquisite decline and fall of Old World Europe...
, October 20, 2000
This review is from: The Rules of the Game [VHS] (VHS Tape)
Jean Renoir's THE RULES OF THE GAME takes place on the eve of World War II at an aristocratic house party in an opulent chateau 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.
It is the middle-class aviator, André Jurieu (Roland Toutain), who embodies the film's central conflict between the private passions and a sense of obligation to a larger social body. Right at the outset of the film, he 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 skill with the advanced technology of aircraft is not matched by an ability to deal with people, particularly in matters of love. Indeed, André's 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.
Other characters also entertain desires that come into conflict with the social order. The Marquis, Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), is having a fling with Geneviève de Marrast (Mila Parély) behind Christine's back, and Geneviève is sincerely attached to him and wants for them to go away together yet he maintains the proper outward appearance, and out of politeness and consideration for his wife's feelings, keeps up the charade that their affair is a secret in spite of the fact that "everybody knows." Christine observes her husband's liaison with strange amusement, commenting that they look "very interesting" together - for her adultery is a form of entertaining spectacle. But even Robert loses his cool at one point when he discovers Christine and André together in the gunroom and punches the aviator in the face.
Strangely enough, it is only the classless Pandarus-figure, Octave, who can get through to the serenely unattainable Christine because he seems to have no particular desires of his own; he only concerns himself with regulating the desires of others. Octave confesses that, like Marcello Mastrioanni in Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA, he is "a failure" who merely pleases his friends so that he may live off their wealth like "a parasite." Apparently, Christine loves him for his understanding that everything in life, every social relationship, is really a lie of some sort, and that all desire and romantic fantasy is, at bottom, a blind form of narcissistic self-deception. It seems that the two of them have come to understand the law that underpins desire - "La Règle de Jeu" - all too well.
As Pauline Kael has pointed out, Renoir may have conceived Robert de la Chesnaye as a composite of two different characters in GRAND ILLUSION: Marcel Dalio's rich young mercantile Jew, Rosenthal, and the generous, self-sacrificing French nobleman, De Boeldieu, played by Pierre Fresnay. Here, the director appears to equate the waning aristocracy of Old World Europe with the imminent fate of the European Jewish community in the wake of rising nationalism, militarism, and xenophobia. When a chef makes an anti-Semitic slight against the Robert, revealing the bigotry of the French working classes, it evokes the controversy surrounding the Dreyfus Affair. By the same token, the General's final comment that Robert is one of a "dying breed" not only heralds the decay of aristocratic privilege but, from the vantage point of hindsight, also seems a chilling spectre of Nazi racialist ideology and the Final Solution.
Christine's Austrian origin alludes to the looming war with Germany and seems a prediction of France's collaboration under the Vichy régime. Likewise, the reference to Schumacher's home of Alsace-Lorraine, the highly contested land ceded to the Germans at the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and then returned to France with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, highlights an old geopolitical conflict between the two countries. The indiscriminate destruction of life in the rabbit and pheasant hunt sequence forecasts the waste and destruction of the war to come.
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 the characters as they 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 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).
Octave's gorilla suit at the party implies a regression of human behavior to a more primitive state, setting up a conflict between barbarism and civilized life, between the savage realities of human desire and the law of the social contract that contains them as theatrical spectacle. The Shakespearean convention of "the play within the play" appears - just as it does in THE GOLDEN COACH - in various forms throughout the film, the most ominous being the `danse macabre,' echoed in the séance and ritual journey to the realm of the dead in LA DOLCE VITA, suggesting that Renoir's superficial `affaires d'amour' are really a dance of death heralding the apocalyptic destruction of the old Europe.
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