Jean Renoir conceived La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) in the autumn of 1938, when the Munich agreement gave Europe a brief and shameful reprieve before the Second World War. As he listened to French baroque music, he devised a film as elegantly structured as a classical comedy that would remorselessly dissect a ruling class sleepwalking into catastrophe.
Renoir, the son of the great Impressionist painter, had, earlier in the 1930s, been quite close to the Communist Party. His lover of the time was a party member, and he even helped make a CP propaganda film for the elections which swept the Popular Front to power in 1936. Films like Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, La Grande Illusion, and La Marseillaise reflect the hopes raised by the Popular Front.
By 1939 these hopes were dead. La Règle du Jeu focuses on the victors, the rich and well bred of Paris. It concentrates on a country houseparty given by a wealthy Jewish marquis, Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). This is a somewhat embarrassing affair, since the dalliance of his wife Christine (Nora Gregor) with one of the guests, the famous airman André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), has just become public knowledge. Meanwhile the marquis is trying to shed his mistress, while his wife has other admirers, including her old family friend, the charming penniless idler Octave, played by Renoir himself.
If that weren't enough, a romantic triangle has developed below stairs, in the servants' hall. Christine's maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is bored with her husband, the uptight Alsatian game-keeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot). She's attracted to Marceau (Julien Carette), the amorous local poacher whom Chesnaye has decided to employ on a whim, much to Schumacher's fury.
If this sounds like a recipe for French farce, in a sense it is. The climactic scenes in which the quarrelling servants pursue each other through the marquis's fancy dress party, while the elegant, laidback Chesnaye finally erupts in fury and turns on his rival Jurieux, the hitherto chaste Christine decides to run off with someone, though she can't quite decide with whom, and various members of the houseparty keep fainting are farcical.
But it is farce of the most brilliant kind, choreographed like a ballet, very funny, and interwoven with more serious themes. At one moment, for example, the anti-Semitism many of the guests feel towards their host suddenly surfaces. At another, Chesnaye's obsession with collecting mechanical toys highlights the uselessness of his entire class. At yet another, Octave, dressed as a bear, admits despair at his talentless waster's life. The critic David Thomson calls the film 'the most dynamic juxtaposition of moods and feelings that cinema has achieved'.
Moreover, key moments reveal the iron fist beneath the velvet glove. In the most famous scene, the guests go shooting. Renoir's savage editing depicts a positive massacre of birds and animals carried out by these elegant ladies and gentlemen. This carnage is recalled at the end of the film when a series of misunderstandings leads to someone being shot. He rolls over, says the poacher Marceau (who should know), just like a rabbit. After this eruption of violence, order is restored, and appearances re-established. The marquis offers a few appropriate remarks, leading one of his guests to praise him, in the film's concluding words, for knowing 'the rules of the game'.
Yet La Règle du Jeu is more than a brilliant satire. As Octave, Renoir himself speaks the film's most famous line 'Tout le monde a raison' 'Everyone has his own good reasons'. The genius of the film lies in the way in which it ruthlessly depicts the gulf separating master and servant, rich and poor, but nevertheless is able through a rapid succession of sharp insights to grasp sympathetically every character's point of view.
The moments when the marquis and the poacher mutually commiserate about their love lives, and when, near the end, Octave and Marceau shake hands in farewell are not sentimental invocations of solidarity between the classes. They affirm simultaneously the characters' common humanity and the social antagonisms that divide them.
La Règle du Jeu went down badly when it was released in July 1939. One cinema in Paris where it was shown was nearly set on fire, and the more unpopular scenes were hastily cut. Within a year France had fallen to Hitler's Blitzkrieg and the pro-Nazi Vichy regime had taken power. After the portrait Renoir had painted of French society, this should have come as no surprise. He took refuge in California, where he spent the rest of his life. His greatest film, carefully restored by two admirers, was only shown in its original length in 1965, to great acclaim. In a France and indeed a Europe that is beginning alarmingly to resemble the 1930s, La Règle du Jeu still has plenty to say.