The Rules of the Game/La Règle du Jeu
Directed by: Jean Renoir
Starring: Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Marcel Dalio, Roland Tautain
Largely considered the greatest satire of all time, The Rules of the Game takes aim at the ludicrous, vapid standards of the ruling class, deriding their frivolous activities and portraying them as incompetent buffoons. Any film that ribs the upper crust of society owes a debt to this movie; direct influence can be spotted even as recently as last year’s Glass Onion! It sits at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes with an 89% audience score, 98/100 on Metacritic, and 7.9/10 on IMDb.
Seperately, it was banned by the Nazi puppet government during WWII because the film “corrupted the youth.” A comedy that scares Nazis? Immediate must watch.
The Rules of the Game is the ONLY film to be featured in…
every decade since 1952. It’s also by far the highest rated comedy. How did such a film earn a spot on a list notorious for praising humanist dramas? Intrigued, I flew across the Atlantic for this pre-WWII satire.
Robert, Marquis de la Chesnaye is throwing a weekend retreat at La Colinière, his country estate. Joining him will be his wife, Christine and her childhood friend, Octave. Octave, however, is at his wit’s end with his friend André Jurieux, a hero aviator having an affair with Christine. Christine, needing to break things off with André, invites him to the retreat, much to the chagrin of Robert. He’s in no position to criticize, though, as he’s invited Genevieve, his mistress, to the same retreat for the same reason! Yeah, this weekend’s gonna be a train wreck.
As the weekend plunges La Colinière’s visitors into romantic nonsense, and some guests make irrecoverable mistakes, the rules of the game become clear to each player aiming to walk away with the lover they desire.
There’s a specific line in La Règle du Jeu where my brain snapped. Before this line, I thought this film was sharp, witty, and a solid critique of classism. When this line is uttered, servants are eating dinner in the basement of the chateau, discussing how they don’t like Jewish people, even though their boss, the marquis, is Jewish. (Mind you, this movie was released less than a year before World War II began.)
The chef defends the marquis, saying,
La Chesnaye, [ethnic slur for Jewish people] as he may be, chewed me out recently over a potato salad. You know – or maybe you don’t – that for it to be any good, you pour white wine over the potatoes when they’re boiling hot. But Celestin was afraid of getting burned. Well, the boss sensed right off he hadn’t done it. Say what you like, but that’s what I call a real gentleman.
This moment broke me, and I understood why this movie is Sight & Sound’s top comedy: The Rules of the Game is masterfully stupid. The sheer virtuosity of its comedic rhythms left me loopy even before the halfway point. Then came a servant being chased by a groundskeeper being chased by a nobleman being chased by an aviator being chased by a hysterical woman being chased by a man in a bear costume being chased by men in skeleton costumes holding umbrella frames. More absurd than that sentence is that the viewer understands why that sequence of events is happening! The audience never loses track of the important things going on because the characters follow logical, if farcical, arcs. To be hilarious without sacrificing story or stakes is already lightning-in-a-bottle rare, yet The Rules of the Game reaches even greater heights with its political and class commentary.
Early on, Octave remarks that he no longer knows what’s right and wrong because “everyone has their reasons.” Much was the same with Europe at the time, each country flirting with dangerous ideas and new forms of governance. If each guest at the chateau is considered a country, then, they’re all too involved in their own affairs (literally) to notice a bear is chasing them! Watching this movie today, the thought that Nazi Germany would own that very chateau in less than a year both chilled me and surprisingly tickled me. None of these people have even the slightest ability to survive wartime. I also ruefully laughed at how timelessly selfish the upper crust was. On the one hand, characters bemoan that things were simpler and more honest in the old days. On the other hand, the same characters justify their lies because, in this modern and dishonest age, other people, somewhere or another, are lying too.
Seen as a whole, La Règle du Jeu tells an engrossing story, reaches unrivaled comedic heights, and reveals timeless truths about wealth and politics. This film more than deserves its perennial lofty spot on Sight & Sound’s list. Personally, though its guests are ridiculous, I know I’ll be visiting the Marquis’ chateau again—and soon!
I hope so, but there are the traditional hurdles to go through if you’re going to show this to a group of friends: It’s in black-and-white. It’s in French. It’s old. Any viewer with enough maturity to get over these reservations will have a high-flying time. One additional aspect to keep in mind, however, is the dated and casual racism hurled around in this movie. One shock-comedy moment involves a military general asking Madam Charlotte, one of the guests, what she’s studying.
Charlotte replies, “American civilization before Columbus’s arrival.”
“Oh,” says The General, “[ethnic slur for Black people]!”
“No, they weren’t there yet,” explains Charlotte.
“Well, then, who was?”
Jokes like these, I believe, target the cluelessness and hypocrisy of the character saying it. If your friends weren’t deterred by the other issues already mentioned, however, they’ll likely understand the nuance of why these slurs exist in the film. Still, some viewers may understandably not wish to hear language like that. Everyone else, now aware of The Rules of the Game, should press play immediately.