Best described as a "comic tragedy," The Rules of the Game focuses on three themes: the relationship between and among the frivilous upper-class and their servants; the complex emotions between men and women; and the boundaries and expectations of society (the "rules of the game").
The film opens with the arrival of Andre Jurieux, a courageous aviator who has just completed a 23-hour solo flight across the Atlantic. As the public stands ready to hear about his heroic exploits, Andre uses the opportunity to whine that he did it all for a woman who didn't bother to be there and greet him. It doesn't matter to Andre that Christine, the woman in question, is married.
|Octave explains the "rules" to Andre.|
At the country gathering of friends, relationships change amidst an avalanche of mixed messages and misunderstandings. A confused Christine contemplates an affair with a stranger, then confesses her love for Andre before realizing that her friendship with Octave may be much more. Meanwhile, her maid Lisette ignores her husband, the gamekeeper, and flirts with both Octave and a poacher-turned-servant named Marceau. It's a classical French farce on the surface, but it's undercut by a condemnation of the bourgeois and concludes with an unexpected tragedy.
|Geneviève participates in the hunt.|
It's no coincidence that the only likable members of Renoir's bourgeois are "outsiders." Several of Robert and Christine's "friends" feel sorry for Christine because she's Austrian. Later, we learn that Robert's father was a "Rosenthal from Frankfort"--meaning that he was Jewish. This allows us to feel empathy for them while still accepting that their vacuous life of luxury is no different from their guests.
|Renoir's trademark use of deep focus--|
Andre and Robert chat as Lisette watches
in the background.
It's ironic that the two most pathetic characters--Andre and Geneviève--are the ones who follow the rules at the risk of their own unhappiness. Andre may come across as a lovestruck fool, but he truly loves Christine and knows what he wants. Likewise, Geneviève understands that she doesn't want to lose Robert, although she confesses that "I don't know if it's love or force of habit." In contrast, Christine, Octave, and Robert struggle with trying to figure out what they really want. In the end, their actions seem foolish and perhaps even tragic, but as Octave explains to Robert at one point: "Everyone has their reasons."
|Robert apologizes to his guests|
after the tragedy.
Based on shooting scripts, film historians have compared the 81-minute and 109-minute versions. They contend that the shorter film was a harsher indictment of the upper classes, since it reduced or eliminated scenes that fleshed out the characters of Octave and Robert.
Since 1952, Sight and Sound magazine has done a poll of the 100 Greatest Films every decade. The Rules of the Game entered the 1952 poll as #10 and has been #2 or #3 in every decade since then. The only film to rank above it: Citizen Kane.