not in our stars, but in ourselves
From a film that is, in some ways, about nothing to a story about people whose lives are full of nothing, nothingness, silly customs and little else – but people whom we meet in a deeply felt, beautifully shot, poetic and lovely and funny and sad film. It’s Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), an infamous flop on its release. On the eve of World War II, France did not appreciate Renoir’s scathing social criticism. The Nazis didn’t, either, and the original negative was destroyed. By some miracle, both the film and its reputation were rehabilitated, and it’s been on everyone’s top ten list ever since.
The opening epigraph is from Le Mariage de Figaro – an allusion that informs the action we are about to witness, and that offers an ironic comment on it:
Sensitive hearts, faithful hearts,
Who shun love whither it does range,
Cease to be so bitter:
Is it a crime to change?
If Cupid was given wings,
Was it not to flitter?
Was it not to flitter?
Was it not to flitter?
Our flitterers think they’re really flying, and in fact, the film begins with such a feat. André Jurieu (Roland Toutain) has just performed a twenty-three-hour trans-Atlantic flight. He is greeted at the airport by a cacophony of press, and by his friend Octave (Renoir himself), but not by the woman whom he sought to impress by performing such a stunt. He sulkily informs a reporter, who is broadcasting live on the radio, that the woman he loves is disloyal. That woman is Christine de La Chesnaye (Nora Grégor), who is listening to the broadcast like the rest of Paris. She is elegant, kindhearted, and Austrian. Oh, and married. Her husband, Marquis Robert de La Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), takes pity on her. He sees how badly she feels about disappointing her pilot, and he decides that he should try to do right by his wife. The next morning, he tells his mistress Geneviève (Mila Parély) that they have to end it. She disagrees. The Chesnayes invite all these mixed nuts to visit them at their country chateau for the weekend, in the swampy Sologne region of France. There, the haute bourgeoisie hunts and kills, drinks and dances, and eventually completely disintegrates.
As you can tell, from even that pared down synopsis, there’s a lot going on here. Renoir wrote in his autobiography, “It is a war film, and yet there is no reference to the war. Beneath its seemingly innocuous appearance, the story attacks the very structure of our society.” He provided the following synopsis:
The world is made up of cliques […]. Each of these cliques has its customs, its mores, indeed its own language. To put it simply, each has its rules, and these rules determine the game. And the smaller the clique, the harsher and more complex the rules. That’s why groups of wealthy people, tennis players, horse lovers, and, more simply, the people of a social set, live by a code that is all the more severe, since these groups stand apart from a nation’s overall population. […] The rules of the game these people play are therefore strict. Sometimes, a few try to escape them. […] In this film, everyone is sincere. There are no villains. The husband sincerely loves [Christine]. Octave sincerely wishes the happiness […] of his friend. But all these people will be weaker than the rules of the game […].
Of course, the following year, the rules would become quite a bit stricter, and more obviously destructive – but then, they would be a matter of life and death. Here, they’re just a matter of how things look.
Sometimes, especially when I watch a Lubitsch film, I think about how lovely it would have been to be a member of the European smart set in the first few decades of the twentieth century. All those parties and gowns and bottles of champagne! All that fabulous sinning! All those escaped nobles! But Renoir knows better. The dearly departed Roger Ebert summed it up thus:
But there is a subterranean level in Renoir’s film that was risky and relevant when it was made and released in 1939. It was clear that Europe was going to war. In France, left-wing Popular Front members like Renoir were clashing with Nazi sympathizers. Renoir’s portrait of the French ruling class shows them as silly adulterous twits, with the working classes emulating them within their more limited means.
In other words, this film about the war that doesn’t mention the war pissed so many people off because it didn’t flinch from telling France the truth: that they were all so preoccupied with their idiotic games and cliques that they essentially allowed a real occupation to happen. It was more complicated than that, and Renoir knew that too, but his central lesson (don’t get too complacent and caught up in bullshit, because then real bad things happen) is one that we all could perhaps take to heart.