There are two big sequences in Rules of the Game. There’s the hunting sequence, which concentrates on the rabbits and pheasants before–and as–they are killed for sport. The animals are hunted without motive or enjoyment. Until a line in the third act connects events, the hunt is mostly just a way to inform Nora Gregor of husband Marcel Dalio’s infidelity. The second sequence has Gaston Modot, as Dalio’s gamekeeper, hunting Julien Carette through Gregor and Dalio’s party.
Why is Modot hunting Carette? Well, Carette’s after Modot’s wife, of course. Gregor and Dalio’s own infidelities and extramarital romances also come to a head during the party, but with far less violence. And Modot is the only one who gets much attention from the society party guests (as he’s shooting up a country estate).
Director Renoir and co-writer Carl Koch offer these events without judgment, without encouraging judgment. They present these moral dalliances of society folk and their domestics as inexplicable, but entirely predictable. Renoir isn’t willing to condemn anyone–not Modot, who’s a bully to his wife (Paulette Dubost), nor Mila Parély (as Dalio’s mistress). It just wouldn’t be any fun if the viewer cared enough about the characters to dislike them.
The film amuses and mortifies, usually at the same time. The opening titles carry the subtitle “a dramatic fantasy,” which is about as serious as Renoir takes it. It can’t be funny if it’s serious. It’s not a cop out on Renoir’s part–the film has limited potential as a melodrama anyway–but it also doesn’t completely connect. By going for the absurd humor in every situation (until the end, anyway), Renoir keeps everything at a distance.
Lots of great performances, including Renoir himself in the film’s most likable part. Carette is likable too, but annoying. As an actor, Renoir is never annoying. Dubost is great. Dalio is great. Toutain is pretty good. Gregory is a little too tragic (she’s playing for the melodrama while everyone else is playing for the absurdism). Parély is good too, even if she eventually just gets to show off her ability to do hysterics.
Technically, the film’s marvelous. Renoir and his four cinematographers showcase the exteriors of the country estate, maintaining its place in nature while completely otherworldly as its populated by these absurd, tragically awful people. And Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir’s editing is phenomenal.
It’s brilliantly made, brilliantly constructed, but never human. Its caricatures run–gloriously–wild.
Directed by Jean Renoir; written by Carl Koch and Renoir; directors of photography, Jean-Paul Alphen, Jean Bachelet, Jacques Lemare and Alain Renoir; edited by Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; music by Joseph Kosma; production designers, Max Douy and Eugène Louriè; released by Distribution Parisienne de Films.
Starring Nora Gregor (Christine de la Cheyniest), Paulette Dubost (Lisette), Marcel Dalio (Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest), Roland Toutain (André Jurieux), Jean Renoir (Octave), Mila Parély (Geneviève de Marras), Julien Carette (Marceau) and Gaston Modot (Schumacher).