Rules of the Game (1939)

A famous aviator pines for the wife of a rich aristocrat, who just happens to be having an affair with another women. Invited to the aristocrats country home by a mutual friend the love triangle grows tighter, tensions flare, and chaos runs rampant through the countryside. The buffonish antics of the upper class guests are mirrored in the equally messy relationships of the lower class servants. The foreground and background are constantly bustling with hysterical parties in search of one another, professing their love or threatening other’s lives. Were it not shot my one of the masters of French cinema – or all cinema for that matter – this premise could easily dwindle down to the one of a series of harebrained soap opera plots or mad-capped comedy clunkers. In the hands of Jean Renior Rules of the Game becomes a part of the cinematic canon, a classic that continually appears on critic’s top ten lists. This classic French drama/comedy about social classes was once considered all but lost. Hated by the French government when it first played, burned by Nazi’s during the occupation, and bombed accidentally by the allies Rules of the Game was rediscovered in the 1950’s, reconstructed, and in time accepted as one of the great works of cinema.

Without meaning to sound insulting, Rules of the Game is nothing but a blotted soap opera. Masterfully constructed by one of France’s greatest cinematic director’s, Jean Renoir’s comedy of social manners sends up the upper and lower classes showing that their is little difference between their lives. Money does not make the lives of the aristocrats anymore meaningful, deeper, or richer. Their lives are just as shallow and complicated as the servants that serve them, but in all cases it is not social status, but human desire that has created all the confusion that surrounds this summer hunting party.

Today, the critical and scholarly references to Rules of the Game recite the legends behind the film or Renoir’s use of deep focus, that pre-dates Citizen Kane. Needlessly, the socio-political message of the film becomes a key topic of discussion, though it is wholly unnecessary for a modern audience to catch the scathing attacks on pre-WWII French culture to enjoy the comedy of manners gone sour that truly makes Rules of the Game a memorable piece of cinema. Unlike other, more political pieces of Renoir’s, Rules of the Game is an over-the-top send-up that sparkles with life. If their are deeper meanings and stunning camera work they take a back seat to the lively performances and the zig-zagging storylines that run amok in the mansion. Perhaps, it is the discussion of such deeper meanings, pumped up by critics and scholars that makes Rules of the Game sound more like vegetables than dessert, thus leaving wider audiences a bad taste, before they even sample the film. To hear it presented as an important work of cinema, that uses long takes, deep focus, and comments heavily on the social strife of pre-WWII France tantamount to saying, Brussle sprouts are being served for dinner. Of course, this is wholly not the case. Once given a chance even the most jaded audiences can overcome the few hang-ups that hold back many old foreign films – subtitles, black’n’white, etc. Rules of the Game goes to show that class struggle, love triangles, and good, rapid fire humor are things that know no national or temporal bounds.

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