The Sunday Night Movie: The Rules of the Game (1939)

Is The Rules of the Game a comedy?  Re-watching it last night I was reminded of just how silly much of its middle section at La Colinière plays, with its jealous husbands chasing their wives’ lovers with guns, annoying mistresses throwing drunken tantrums, etc.  It’s a sequence in which we see the whole machinery of European bourgeois society going haywire, just at the moment that (tellingly) Robert’s much-prized mechanical theater proceeds to break down.  The screwball comedy of The Rules of the Game’s middle act makes the fatal coincidences of its ending all the more devastating; farce is replayed as tragedy.  And yet the film’s final wry observation, delivered by the unflappable old military general staying at the house as a guest of Robert, is a kind of punch-line that lands squarely in the gut.  It’s a poignant and unexpected ending, one that both caps off the film’s delicate intermingling of comedy and tragedy, the two swirling together like red and white wine, and joltingly re-frames the action of the film by viewing it from an unfamiliar angle.    

To set the scene: the idealistic, romantic lover Jurieux, his identity mistaken for that of his best friend Octave, has just been shot to death in the garden.  A consummate host, Robert responds by delivering an impersonal, official-sounding speech, itself framed as a theatrical performance upon a stage, bemoaning the unfortunate “accident.”  One of the guests turns to the general and responds with a snort of derision.  But the general points out that Robert’s bogus platitudes are actually a queer sort of comfort—a sign that Robert understands the rules of the game of class, and that he is committed to following them to the letter.  The defeat in the general’s voice as he says this is tempered by a note of mournful pride.  That the last words of a film so crowded with people are given to the general, whose role is relatively small, comes as something of a surprise.  Why not end with Christine, or a remorseful, humbled Schumacher, or a cynical crack from Lisette, or a word of remembrance from Octave, who after all is played by Renoir himself?  But instead Renoir defers to this sage-like figure who stands apart from the film’s tangle of lovers.  Watching them, what can one do but congratulate them on the grace with which they each play out their parts, doomed though they may be?  What else can one do but smile, and laugh?  The Rules of the Game may only be a comedy insofar as it is about choosing to smile through tears.  Watching Renoir’s film, you don’t laugh until it hurts—you laugh because it hurts.  

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