Learning The Rules of the Game: Expression, Intimacy, and Aesthetic Pleasure in Jean Renoir’s Masterpiece

© Janus Films

In the opening lines of the critical theory text Minima Moralia, writer Theodor Adorno claims that by the 1940s humanity had lost the ability to reflect on the good life. Though the question of what constitutes the good life (in its full Aristotelian sense) is the fundamental question of philosophy, it had been squeezed out by a focus on method and logical formalism. Without affirming or denying a claim of this magnitude with regard to philosophy, it simply cannot be true of the arts—and film in particular—when The Rules of the Game exists, Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece that functions as a treatise on living well (while also being one of the most beautiful, pleasurable films ever made).

Set “on the eve of World War II,” The Rules of the Game is a devastatingly funny story of deception, betrayal, and adultery in a group of aristocrats and their servants. The chateau at which most of the story unfolds is a microcosm of French society, a vivid portrait of a way of life in its death throes. Renoir sensed the coming war would decisively end the lingering class structure present here, lending the film a pervasive melancholy that moves this farcical comedy of manners toward the truly profound.

Though every character seeks happiness, these searches are complicated by the class structures and rigid social codes of the time. Far from feeling outdated, these rules serve to throw into sharp relief the systems of conduct we follow and expect others to follow as well. America may imagine itself a classless society beholden to no outdated traditions but, just as one character protests late in the film, “Even so, there are still rules.” On the other hand, the multitude of characters in the film illustrate just how flexible these rules can be if one approaches them with a sense of creativity and a willingness to play the game. The film—and the game therein—amounts to a veritable encyclopedia of human conduct and desire that is certain to inspire a few ideas of how to live well (and more than a few of how not to).

The film opens at an airfield where a crowd is eagerly awaiting the arrival of André Jurieu (Roland Toutain), an aviator who has just completed a record-setting transatlantic flight. The public considers him a hero and expects a grand pronouncement when he lands. But he is only interested in being greeted by one particular person so, when he determines she has not come, declares to the whole world over the radio that he is “very unhappy,” that he “has never been so disappointed in his life.” The object of his affection and disappointment is Christine (Nora Gregor), the Austrian wife of Robert, the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) who is himself having an undisclosed affair with another woman, Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély), an affair which predates his marriage. André, smitten with Christine, anticipates the impending consummation of their relationship, though Christine—a foreigner—did not realize she was flouting social customs and had no idea the impression she was creating, spending so much time with the heroic aviator.

For Christine’s goal with André was never romance but friendship. She is shocked by the certainty held by those around her that simple, undiluted friendship cannot exist between men and women. Her coquettish maid Lisette practically laughs in her face at the notion and replies, “Friendship with a man? When pigs fly!” Christine is disturbed that she has upset the social order and given André a false impression but more so that her desire to make a friend has gone unfulfilled. Lingering constantly in the background of her character is her status as an immigrant; one senses that she simply doesn’t know too many people in Paris.

But how to connect to others? Soon the action moves to the country estate she and Robert own, La Colinière, where they are hosting a multitude of guests for a week of hunting and socializing. There are any number of minor characters visiting who would make an acceptable companion and confidant, but all remain somewhat distant from one another. Christine’s attempts to engage a cousin in conversation during the hunt yield bland agreements and little more. She has arrived at an impasse: Conversations lacking a sexual underpinning are dull, but those with some spark of life to them are scandalous.

She glimpses a way forward midway through the film when, through binoculars, she catches her husband, Robert, and his lover, Genevieve, embracing. We expect pain and outrage at this revelation but instead she takes it as an opportunity to find the kind of understanding that so far has eluded her in France. She visits Genevieve and, instead of rebuking her, encourages her to stay longer at La Coliniere and continue her involvement with Robert. She says that keeping Robert distracted “would suit her just fine right now,” an indication that she has accepted the parameters governing her relationships with men and will pursue them to their fullest. By befriending her rival lover, Christine breaks through the iciness of convention as they find the most intimate details of their love lives to be their point of commonality. They laugh at how Robert smokes in bed and burns holes in the sheets with his ash and there is a warmth to this interaction rarely found elsewhere in this world, even between actual lovers. By uniting a form of sexual tension with the innocence of same-sex friendship, Christine finally finds what she has sought for so long.

Christine’s decision represents a capitulation to the system, but serves as a helpful reminder that making peace with the realities of one’s life is not always a bad choice.

On the other hand, we have André, whose insistence on convention is his doom. Not of noble lineage, he has ascended to the status of national hero through his aviation exploits and, as such, yearns for a culture that behaves according to principles of conduct that are quickly becoming outdated. He detests the dissembling required to maintain the tacit acceptability of affair-driven romance. When his designs to steal Christine from Robert become explicit, he erupts angrily that if she loves him she should be with him, a very limited viewpoint to those around him, especially given her well-expressed reservations.

André believes in boldness and daring. Those around him see him as indiscreet, a word eventually used to chastise him. His values are from a different time. An old general who, being past the age of partaking in the small scandals of the weekend simply comments on them, calls André a “dying breed,” a character who will soon have no place in the world around him—an irony, considering that his heroism is predicated on flying airplanes, the pinnacle of progress.

André is given numerous opportunities to realize his error in judgment—that Christine bears only a passing affection for him—but is unable to seize them. It is so ingrained in him that the his time spent with Christine indicates romantic feeling (of the highest degree!) that he is incapable of freeing himself from this prejudice. She does eventually declare that she has feelings for him, but only after, by her own admission, having too much to drink and fooling around with a second man before then plotting to run away with a third. Any reasonable person would find more than a few red flags in this situation but André’s peculiar sense of decorum acts as blinders to anything other than his sense of seductive duty.

In a complicated case of mistaken identity involving yet another set of hopeless and pragmatic lovers, André is shot while attempting to rendezvous with Christine (who thinks she is being met by someone else). Following the same values that have liberated Christine leads to his death. Where she was playful and creative in the allowances of affair-culture, his rigid sense of chivalry is his undoing.

Perhaps both Christine and André’s troubles are caused by their focus on things outside themselves. The learning required to interact with others “properly” seems to have distracted many of the characters from developing any private interests or passions. There are, however, a couple of characters who have learned and who (not coincidentally) display a fullness of character and capacity to meet new situations confidently that others lack.

The first of these is Robert, Christine’s husband. He collects musical contraptions of all kinds, from the mundane gramophone to the racially discomforting “petite negresse.” His preoccupation with these toys seems childish at first—he conducts important conversations while fiddling with his warbler (a mechanical bird)—but in time we come to see how much they mean to him. For him the centerpiece of the night of revelry that takes up the second half of the film is the unveiling of his “orchestrion,” a music machine designed to replicate a full orchestra, which he declares to be the crown jewel of his collection.

With great fanfare, he sets in motion its dazzling deluge of light and sound before moving to stand next to it. Renoir cuts in to focus on several details of the machine’s decoration and then pans across several small cherub figures ringing bells. We pass these and linger on Robert’s face as he expresses a sublime mixture of emotion. All at once, we can see his pride at displaying something that means so much to him and his embarrassment at the same; we see his discomfort with revealing something so dear to his heart and the joy it brings him to share it; we see his nervousness with being thought ridiculous for caring so much for this contraption and his willingness to throw caution to the wind for the sake of something so important. For good reason did Renoir declare this “the best shot [he’d] ever done.”

Yet, it could be objected, what is the passion that Robert is sharing in this moment? If he loves music itself, why create it in this mechanized, inhuman manner? We see early in the film that he owns proper instruments but never see him play them. Wouldn’t this musicality better be channeled into learning to produce music himself? These are valid criticisms whose answers are illuminated by examining one last character, Octave.

Octave, played by director Jean Renoir, is the glue that holds this film together. On the level of plot, he is friends with most every character and facilitates invitations and meetings necessary for events to come together properly. He is capable of this because he transcends the class barriers that confine everyone else. He is a failed artist. He is a man of high culture—he trained as a conductor with Christine’s late father, a famed conductor in Austria—but meager means. He holds this in for most of the film but eventually cracks and reveals the deep disappointment of not being able to practice his passion.

Octave possesses great refinement and delicacy of sentiment in addition to a wondrous capacity for empathy and pleasure. It is hard to imagine a soul more suited to the artistic life. That he has failed points toward a deep problem in this society that makes artistic expression all but impossible. In one decisive moment, Octave walks to the top of the patio stairs and stands at attention before an invisible orchestra. He brings his imaginary players to the brink of beginning a piece, tenses, and slumps, defeated. The denizens of this world are starved for the opportunity to even pretend to make art.

Hence the machines. In a world where convention precludes human expression at the risk of being indiscreet, these urges are passed on to our creations to be repeated with technical perfection but without the human touch. The ebullient Charlotte (Odette Talazac) accompanies one of the first theatrical skits on the piano but steps aside when the music gets harder. The piano is revealed to be a player piano and Charlotte is reduced to watching it play the “Danse Macabre” itself.

Presumably the piece was beyond her capabilities. Yet the music is part of a frivolity, a show put on simply for the enjoyment of those involved. The skits we see aren’t actually, you know, good; they’re performance for performance’s sake, a pleasure that is only accessible to those involved through the universal adoption of masks and costumes. To perform as oneself would be far too revealing for all involved. But the fact that these people will go to such lengths to grasp some bit of artistic expression speaks to the fundamental necessity of these experiences in our lives. The player piano can play better than anyone and great performances are available through the many radios in the chateau but that is hardly the point. The point of these activities is the doing, the cultivation of a skill or virtue for its own sake, not for the sake of fulfilling a practical need in one’s life.

It speaks to the greatness of The Rules of the Game that this philosophy extends outward to encompass the film itself. Though there are a great many lessons to be learned from it, the film exists as an object of pure beauty. Every shot is so beautiful that the question of the film’s utility quickly becomes beside the point. It can be revisited over and over again, simply to revel in its immaculate construction and marvelous shots. In drawing us in like this, it subverts our impulse to consume a work— to “get the point”—and move on. We cannot help but return to such a film, simply to exist in proximity to it. In doing so, we act out its greatest lesson, to grasp onto meaning wherever we find it, no matter how farcical these sources may look at first glance.