“What is natural, these days?” a lady dressing for the evening asks her maid, who finds Madame’s violet lipstick a bit too artificial. The year is 1939, the place Paris, after the Munich Conference’s false promises of peace and on the eve of Hitler’s deadly march across Europe. The lady’s observation, tossed off in the first few minutes of The Rules of the Game, is like so much else in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, at once frivolous and poignant—a melancholy lament for a world gone awry, delivered in a tone so light you might think you had missed it.
The Rules of the Game follows the amorous exploits of a group of aristocrats invited to a hunting party at a French château. Their hectic intrigues find an uncanny echo in the affairs of their servants, upstairs and downstairs comically crossing paths on the way to a tragic conclusion. The film’s dazzlingly labyrinthine script never mentions the coming war, yet its menace permeates a milieu that seems to have lost all moral compass, and where the ideal of happiness had been sacrificed to one of mere amusement.
And amuse themselves these people do—along with us. Their spineless yet sympathetic host, the wealthy, Jewish Marquis de la Chesnaye (brilliantly played by Marcel Dalio), when he’s not attempting to rid himself of a cumbersome mistress, entertains himself with mechanical toys—player pianos, artificial warbling birds—that mirror his own vacuity. Meanwhile his beautiful, foreign-born wife (Nora Gregor, the stage name of an Austrian princess) must contend with the adoration of a dashing aviator (Roland Toutain)—a romantic hero thrust into a society devoid of illusions. (Renoir himself is unforgettable as the friend and hanger-on Octave, a failed artist haunted by a sense of missed opportunities.)
Shades of an 18th-century French farce—yet who can forget, in the thrilling scene of the hunt when white-robed servants beat the trees to flush out the game, that within a few years similar forests would be hunted for partisans and Jews? Renoir’s artistic sensitivity seems to have endowed him with a kind of second sight. In the brutal threats of the château’s Alsatian gamekeeper, jilted by his Parisian lady-maid wife, one hears an echo of the fascist desire to control both women and nature.
The Rules of the Game provoked something like a riot at its Parisian premiere. Never mind that the anti-Semitic and xenophobic press had a field day with Dalio’s Jewishness and Gregor’s thick Austrian accent. “People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses,” Renoir said of the French response to his film, which, beneath its frothy veneer, showed their society going down the drain. The film was cut twice, and its original negative was destroyed by Allied bombing. The occasion for this re-release is its complete restoration from a master print. It is required viewing, if only to understand the ideal that filmmakers from Robert Altman to Woody Allen have been after. And even if you think you know it, see it again for its newly rediscovered depth of field, and even more, for its infinite wellsprings of character and empathy.