Modern non-French audiences might scratch their heads over the controversy Jean Renoir’s classic La régle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) caused in pre-war France. What we might see as a harmless satire on the silliness of the upper class actually cut to the bone at a particularly sensitive and insecure time and place. Renoir ripped away the illusion of reverence for the upper class, depicting them as frivolous and vain people who surround themselves with equally frivolous and vain friends and employees. These were the same people who were buckling under the pressures of Nazi Germany and advocating their own version of Franco-fascism to stave off the Aryan threat. Renoir directly challenges the ruling class with this farcical melodrama that follows the loves and lusts at a French country estate among the hosts, guests, and servants. Audiences would have walked away gobsmacked that these profoundly unserious people could have any legitimacy in a situation as serious as government and relations with belligerent Germany.
The story plays like a Molière farce capped with Shakespearean tragedy. At the center is the Marquis de la Cheyniest – Robert to his friends – and his wife Christine. They are hosting a weekend getaway at their country estate with their equally vacuous friends. Both have been involved in extramarital dalliances – Robert with Geneviève and Christine with the famed aviator André Jurieux. For various reasons both Geneviève and André are invited. The Cheyniest’s complacency and arrogance shade them from reality and their money and power protects them from consequences, so they feel safe inviting marital disaster into their homes. Having their lovers so close heightens the danger and raises the stakes. Are their lives really so boring that they need this manufactured and unnecessary drama? (The answer seems to be yes – Robert, like a king in The Thief of Baghdad dotes over his collection of windup toys rather than his wife.)
Like any romantic farce the weekend devolves into a comedy of errors – and the hijinks aren’t confined to the hosts and their extramarital companions. Christine’s maid Lisette flirts with the new servant Marceau under the jealous eye of her husband Schumacher. Eventually Schumacher, fed up with Marceau’s shameless pursuit of his wife, loses his cool and, in the most absurd scene of the movie, chases the man with his gun through the guest filled house, firing almost at random. The guests are shocked, but it seems less at their own personal danger and more at the impropriety of servants quarreling before the guests. Schumacher may as well have thrown custard pies and he would have gotten the same clutch-the-pearls reaction.
Schumacher’s bullets, though not taken all that seriously, indicate that these romantic entanglements are not harmless. The film ends in sobering tragedy with murder, but, closely following the rules of the game, the event is explained away as an accident, rather than as a logical outcome of their reckless behavior. Renoir seems to have wanted this story to shake France awake from the looming Nazi threat and the rulers of France who flirted with the enemy, anxious to retain their position and privilege. But Renoir wouldn’t let them play the same game without exposure because he understood there would be no way to go back and explain away the coming disaster as an accident. No matter how charming Robert and Christine may be (and Renoir was smart enough to make them charming people), their empty-headed arrogance is, according to Renoir, leading the entire country to disaster. It’s amazing how prescient so many of these pre-war French movies were and none more so than the best movie of 1939, La régle du jeu.