1939 Jean Renoir
lies and misdemeanors
Observations by Tony McRae

The French word "jeu" means "game" or "play."  Children play "cops and robbers" or war games or house or doctor.  Sometimes they dress up for their parts, use props to make the game more real.  The more they pretend, the more real the game becomes.  And most important, if the game is to be played properly, its rules must be followed.  If there are participants who are not familiar with the rules, it's up to the other players to inform the newcomer.  Sometimes rules are broken accidentally or intentionally.  In either case the center cannot hold.

In 1938 as Germany was preparing its blitzkrieg through Europe, a troubled Jean Renoir was thinking of a film that might reflect this atmosphere of foreboding.  But instead of a war picture in the vein of Grand Illusion, he turned to an unlikely source, the comic theater of 18th century France and the works of Marivaux, Beaumarchais, and Musset, with their studied and incisive pokes at the follies of the haute bourgeoisie.  Renoir saw in these works the same ethos of myopic insouciance of the upper classes that was gripping Europe at the end of the 1930s.  In an interview Renoir once described European society in the 1930s as "rotten to the core," not so much because individuals were evil, but because they were weak and deceitful, content to carry on with their lives as the world around them was heading to oblivion.  They lied, to others and to themselves.  

What strikes us so today is Renoir's ability to take such a serious and even ponderous subject, that of a venal and ignorant society refusing to acknowledge the rise of Fascism, and creating an expansive and loving portrait of people entangled in each other's lives and in the end unable to extricate themselves from the "game" they find themselves in.  In the last scene, while acknowledging the tragedy that has occurred, the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) excuses the culprit for the "accident" that caused the death of one of his guests.  The alternative, to charge the man with murder, would be unthinkable.  

In the very first scene of "La Règle du jeu," the famous pilot André Jurieu (Roland Toutain) has just landed at Le Bourget after crossing the Atlantic in record time.  A huge crowd greets him, proclaims him a hero.  When he is told that the woman he loves has not come to the airport, be blurts into the microphone that he is greatly distressed, that he "made this flight for a woman" and "she is not here to welcome me."  Hero or not, Jurieu has committed a major faux pas.  We soon learn that his character flaw is to speak the truth, that is, to bare his soul in public, a sure indication that he is not of the moneyed class.  Throughout the film Jurieu continues to pursue the woman he loves with little regard for society's conventions.  His persistence will eventually cause grave consequences to himself and to the people around him.  

From Le Bourget airport and Jurieu's confession, director Renoir cuts to the woman in question, Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Gregor), who is listening to the broadcast; yet she seems strangely unconcerned with her lover's indiscretion.  She is at her toilette, her maid in attendance.  She asks Lisette (Paulette Dubost) if she has lovers.  "What do they say to you?  Do you let them kiss you?  Can you be friends?"  Lisette is shocked by this last question.  "Friendship with a man?"  She laughs at the thought.  Christine has to acknowledge as much, that friendship with a man is a luxury even she cannot afford.  The exception is, of course, Octave, a pupil of her father's who is a sensible but somewhat bumbling presence.  Christine conversation with Lisette reveals that the servants as well play by the same rules as the rich.  Rules are rules and may be stretched a bit as long as they are kept private.  The ensuing scenes, both at the château of the Baron de la Chesnaye and at La Colinière, his country house where most of the action takes place, test this very notion of love, friendship, and the rules that govern the lives of all these people.

Like many of the plays of Musset and Beaumarchais, the intrigues are triangular, three love triangles in fact. We have the Baron de la Chesnaye,  his wife Christine, and the aviator Jurieu; again the Baron, his wife, and his mistress Geneviève (Mila Parély); and finally Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the game-keeper, his wife, the aforementioned Lisette, and Marcel (Julien Carette), a newly arrived domestic.  Through all the intrigues, the comic romps, the afternoon hunt, the sorting out of rooms prior to retiring, the amateur theatricals, and the rest, is the heedful and obliging figure of Octave played by Renoir.  He is both the outsider (he has little money) and the confidant of several of the key players.  He is never seen as a threat, he can be relied upon to tell the truth without endangering protocol.  In other words, he is discreet--he knows the rules.  A good guy to have around.  

But Octave, too, is living a life of denial.  For one thing, besides being a sponger, a "parasite," he calls himself, he is a man who has not fulfilled his dream of being a great conductor like Christine's father who befriended him in Austria.  He does not dare to admit that he loves Christine not merely as a friend and confidant.  Christine, too, has her secrets.  For the past three years, she says, her life has been built on a lie, the fact that her husband has been cheating on her.  She suspected it but dared not admit it.  Octave tells her that lying is part of the times, from pharmaceutical flyers to government and newspapers and cinema.  So why shouldn't simple people like us lie as well? he asks.  Soon after, she tells Octave, "It's you I love."  And he admits he loves her too.  His confession will be the catalyst that results in Jurieu's death.  Renoir the director seems to be saying that if the kindly and sensible Octave can be deceitful, then there is no one to trust.  Everyone lies.  

  The scene immediately following Octave's admission of love is beautifully set up by Renoir's use of  deep focus in which the visuals contradict the  dialogue.  The Marquis and Jurieu have made a truce after a comedic brawl and are chatting as they walk toward the camera.  The one thing they can agree on is that Octave is a decent fellow.  In the background Christine's maid Lisette is doing her own plotting, her antics belying what the two men are saying.  As the men exit the frame, Octave can be seen entering the corridor, literally behind their backs.  He is there to co-opt Lisette in his abduction of Christine.  He, too, has finally become a rule breaker.  He may be betraying the two men, each of whom count him as their friend, but that does not mean that he is bad, a betrayer.  Renoir the director seems to be implying that he can be both good and bad simultaneously.  Like the rest of us.

It is interesting that Renoir decided to play Octave, a man who does not value himself, yet someone who manages a positive attitude, certainly more positive than any of the haut monde he associates with.  His advice to both Jurieu and Christine is sound, yet he himself does not follow it himself.  Well, in the end, the does understand that running away with Christine would be the worse thing he could do.  So he sends Jurieu to the greenhouse where Christine is waiting, sending him in effect to his death.  

This seems to be Renoir's ironic credo that everyone is essentially good, it's just that there are times when acting honorably isn't always possible.  It's easier to lie to oneself than face reality.  But one must be ready to face the consequences.

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