Thursday, August 16, 2012

Short Take: The Rules of the Game

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The famous line from French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterwork The Rules of the Game is, “Everybody has their reasons.” Most of the story takes place at a French country estate during a weekend-long house party. The hosts, guests, and servants are indeed guided by their reasons, or more specifically, their whims and piques. On the spur of the moment, lovers come together, take up with others, and reunite. The bitterest of enemies become the most intimate of friends, and the source of their animosity turns into the heart of their rapport. In this atmosphere, only the priggish are unwelcome, with the price of that stubbornness proving tragic. Renoir catches the viewer up in the mercurial mindset of his characters with deft writing and all but miraculous direction. Characters enter and leave scenes and shots at random, yet the story and staging always seem clear and uncontrived. The conflicts brought about by the characters’ constantly shifting relationships are orchestrated into a dizzyingly funny slapstick farce. And while Renoir is certainly amused by the frivolity of this upper-class world, he understands its darker side as well. The cold brutality of the hunt that precedes the evening gala, and the indifference to the murder that follows it, are incisively harsh indictments of the callous hedonism of the idle rich. Renoir makes moral and emotional relativism lyrical, and it’s simultaneously charming and horrifying. Many, including myself, consider this film the greatest ever made. The large cast includes Marcel Dalio and Nora Gregor as the hosts, Roland Toutain as the celebrity aviator, Mila Parély as the Dalio character’s mistress, Paulette Dubost as the hostess’s personal maid, Gaston Modot as the gamekeeper, Julien Carette as the poacher, and Renoir himself as Octave. The screenplay is by Renoir and Carl Koch. Coco Chanel designed the costumes.

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