Bright Wall/Dark Room.
1 year ago
Sight & Sound List #4: The Rules of the Game (1939)


by Danielle Lee

"I want to introduce you ladies to something,” the college junior said, digging into her canvas bag. "This," she announced with a flourish, clapping together two flat ceramic tongs, "is a flat iron. Your new best friend. Learn it, love it."

That evening, in a green-carpeted, floral-choked sitting room, the lessons were beginning with heat-applied hair restructuring—and a compulsive need to address all sixty of us, so priggishly, as ladies.

They continued with other helpful beauty tips. Don’t be fat. Nor ugly. If you dare entertain the option of either, never do so while wearing your letters, those big Greek ones stitched to your sweatshirt and glinting at the end of lavaliere necklaces.

Or so we were told during the diplomatically titled “Personal Development” seminar, led by our fearless Personal Development Chair, still waving that hair tool over our unkempt heads, as if to flatten us all into one indeterminate plane of shine.

These rules were new to me. I had never before matched my face to my jewelry nor my weight to the Greek alphabet and, worse, had been mistakenly using that iron apparatus to press so many delicious paninis back home.

But moving away to start college—and then rushing a sorority—had brought me to this overly-cushioned perch where I was to learn the brutal lessons of post-teenage life. In this new world of tiny bunk beds, matching uniforms and constant chanting, everything required careful ironing.

As writer-director Jean Renoir, portraying the hapless Octave, explains to another character in his farcical masterpiece La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), “she belongs to society, the rules are strict.”

His “society” was pre-World War II France’s bourgeoisie and their servants, a tableau ripe for the comedy-of-manners that became the prototype for every subsequent ensemble comedy, Robert Altman film, and Downton Abbey. The “she” is Christine (Nora Gregor), an Austrian transplant at the center of a love hexagon. The complex relationships criss-cross a hunting party weekend at the French countryside estate she owns with her husband Robert (Marcel Dalio). And the “rules”… are about as logical as hair texture signifying personal growth.

In fact, the lack of decorum among the openly adulterous, self-obsessed characters was so blasphemous that French audiences revolted, the Nazi-occupied government banned the film, and distributors demanded drastic cuts.

Irony had no place in prewar, colonial France.

Nor in the post-Millennial Greek life of Los Angeles, where “relations” with high-status fraternities were encouraged, just short of punishment-inducing blatancy. Parties. Dancing. Grain alcohol. Jungle juice. Dark corners. Shots … just short of public puking.

In the 1930s chateau: Parties. Dancing. Wine. Hunting. Dark corners. Gunshots … just short of bodily peril.

“Foolishly, perhaps, they value their lives,” Robert says of his oblivious guests to a servant he’s forced to fire after whizzing bullets fracture one of the night’s many love triangles. The guests all assumed the crazed servant shooting at his wife’s new lover was an extension of the evening’s earlier stage performance, praising their host’s “original idea” of live gunfire.

We had inventive party ideas, too. Tons of money was spent hauling fake snow or sand into the front yards of mansions to approximate seasons, while inside, rooms represented different countries and their bottom-shelf specialty cocktails. The wind-up “negress” toy Robert proudly displays in his home would nicely complement a hornful of fruity Everclear in “Africa.” Meanwhile, the fraternity brother whose BB gun shooting at a soiree got his house banished from campus would be in perfect position next to the French gentry hunters, leisurely killing bunnies while the help scurries to collect the fallen carcasses.

The exertion of these servants and dogs—whacking trees and chasing down prey—gives the hunting party’s elite, who only occasionally lift a trigger finger, plenty of time to lament their high-class problems. And they do, in the kind of slapstick scenes and visual gags that have since emptied so many cans of laughter on so many Hollywood soundstages.

Bored with the whole shooting thing, Christine peers through a monocular and, after delighting in “the most intimate details of [a] squirrel’s personal life,” turns to accidentally discover her husband embracing his mistress. Back at the house, Christine confronts the mistress—and within minutes the two are laughing at their shared grievances against their shared man. Christine then implores her new ally to continue distracting him so she can pursue her own extramarital options. In another room, Robert basically gives lovesick aviator hero André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) permission to chase after Christine because, “happily, she’s fallen for one of our set.”

These snapshots into idleness and gauche conversation reveal the characters’ comfortable bubble of privilege, which Renoir’s pioneering camera work inflates with wide, roving takes. His camera gleefully weaves through the chaotic carnage after the party’s hosts perform a comedic play for their guests, capturing the guests trading spouses, lovers and heated arguments.

This democratic, deep-focus lens collapses the social hierarchy. The antics of Christine’s handmaiden Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who is cheating on her husband with another servant, are visually comparable to Christine’s own evasions of André and declarations of love for his friend Octave. The film’s broad social satire is subversively humanized by its broad compositions that bring detail to these background plotlines, with social status secondary to operatic emotion. When Renoir does play with focus, it’s to emphasize different players in the confusing game of extramarital roulette.

Were he to compose some of my early collegiate scenes, he’d also find pockets of depth. Behind the kegstanding freshman, a senior counting cash raised and then donated to charity. To the left of some petty duel, two sisters forging a lifelong bond.

Renoir recognizes these layers, both aesthetically and otherwise. As insanity continues to grip the chateau, now overrun by screaming women and impassioned fistfights, Robert demands of a servant: “Put a stop to this farce!” To which the servant astutely replies, “Which one?”

There’s the larger political one, a steady undercurrent to the whole weekend retreat. The wild party ends when an inevitable case of mistaken identity leads a spurned lover to shoot and kill the wrong adulterer. Before the gunpowder even settles, Robert explains away the “accident” to his guests from the top of the chateau’s front steps, as if from a pulpit. He attributes the murder to fate and effectively restores the status quo, at that time broadly defined by a denial of impending war. When one guest attempts to question this entreaty for willful ignorance, balking at Robert’s “new definition of accident,” an older guest known simply as the General (Pierre Magnier) replies, “Not at all. [Robert] has a touch of class. That’s a rare thing nowadays, a rare thing.”

The General’s line is a running gag that, especially in its last repetition, illuminates the nebulous and hypocritical nature of “class.” “Class” was also a frequently chirped word during that personal development seminar, widening a chasm between words and actions.

“It’s another sign of the times, everyone lies,” Octave says to console Christine, angered at her husband’s secrets. “Patent medicines, governments, radio, cinema, newspapers. So why should you expect us ordinary mortals not to lie, too?”

Yet Renoir’s mortals rarely explicitly do, when voicing his quipping dialogue. Characters, whether cheating or cheated on, often respond to each exposed dalliance with casual acknowledgment or a resigned shrug, except for Christine, who, as a foreigner, doesn’t understand this friendly infidelity in the way a “Parisian woman would,” according to her husband’s mistress. Even Lisette’s husband, notable in his outrage, channels it into shooting at his wife’s lover, a literal poacher he had already earlier chased through the hunting fields. His pursuit—as with those of all the characters—is a tirelessly circular one befitting his station in life.

These futile games are rendered harmless bacchanalia in the wake of a war climate that would ironically find them offensive. Only years later did the film’s genius emerge in Renoir’s subversions. His characters’ arrogance, insularity and entitlement critiqued the French colonial empire’s mission civilisatrice but also spoke to the deep human need for rules, no matter how trivial. The rowdy chateau partygoers (like their government) would have no place “civilizing” African natives, but their statutes for hunting geese—and each other—could effectively assimilate an outsider of acceptable class rank.

Rules, even the chateau’s very tenuous ones, are necessary for this kind of abandoned fun. Without them, there are no pleasurable acts of rebellion or mischief. Without them, I would have merely been… a normal privileged college student, absent the perverse joy of dramatic emotions and deceitful gossip. Fellow outsider Christine would agree.

“They’re a bore, sincere people,” she remarked.

“Keep it classy, ladies!” chanted the sorority sisters. Right before Gamma Nu invaded Beta Omega.

Danielle Lee still doesn’t own a flat iron.

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