French audiences welcomed the 1939 premiere of Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” with violent jeers. One man, so angered by Renoir’s swipe at a complacent Gallic upper class and what it implied about society at large, reportedly even tried to torch the theater.
Then the government moved in, banning the film as “demoralizing” for a country on the verge of war with the Nazis. All in all, “The Rules of the Game,” which screens Saturday at UC Irvine, ran for only three weeks, a classic flop. Only much later was it resurrected as a cinematic classic, considered the masterwork of the director called “the greatest of all time” by no less than Francois Truffaut and Charlie Chaplin.
Renoir himself said he was of two minds, both comic and tragic, during the project. At the most obvious, this is a comedy of manners, a farce about rich people so self-obsessed that they approach the grotesque. You shake your head and smile at the silly things they say and do during their weekend in the country.
The tragedy comes by the end when a murder forces them to close ranks in a daisy chain of hypocrisy. But “The Rules of the Game” has really been satirically tragic throughout, a depiction, as Renoir said, of an aristocracy “dancing on a volcano.” It’s a fey dance performed by a thoroughly irrelevant tribe.
The characters are like the elaborate music boxes that Robert, one of the movie’s main fops, cherishes--animate but mechanical, pretty but vapid.
Renoir never alludes to the war rising up around them, but it’s not much of a reach to find in “Rules” a condemnation of the widespread apathy that would allow Nazism to flourish.
Even the less-idle French are occupied by other things, such as the feats of aviator Andre Jurieu. “The Rules of The Game” opens like something out of a breathless adventure serial, with Andre (Roland Toutain) landing amid a Lindbergh-like celebration after a record crossing of the Atlantic. While the crowds swarm around and a reporter asks how he feels, all this romantic fool can do is pine about the married woman he loves.
We’re soon introduced to that woman (Nora Gregor), her husband, Robert (Marcel Dalio), Robert’s mistress (Mila Parely), everybody’s best friend, Octave (played by Renoir) and a handful of upper-class somebodies and working-class nobodies as they gather for a few days in a woodsy retreat.
On the surface, a lace of flirtations, insinuations and rejections compose the basic plotting. But Renoir uses flashes of accelerating drama to amplify his bigger points. The pivotal hunting scene is brutal as this glib clique goes about killing what seems like dozens of rabbits and pheasants, all the while squabbling about who shot what.
The contrast with what has come before is jarring, but Renoir brings everything back into comic focus a little later. Andre and Robert’s fistfight is more like two boys slapping away near the playground slide; Renoir’s cinematographer, Jean Bachelet, lets his camera chase them around the mansion, giving the scene a hilarious energy that shows how effete these two warriors are.
Like much of the movie, those moments have a natural, automatic quality that came from Renoir’s reliance on improvisation to find the right flow. One of his favorite gambits was allowing his actors to invent their roles in the hope it would bring freshness to the performances--and inspiration to his directing.
It does in “The Rules of the Game” (Dalio is especially ripe as the dandy Robert), which in turn generates a deceptively casual air. Nothing seems overwrought or studied, and it’s this smooth face that lets the satire stand out in such high relief.
* Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” will screen Saturday at 7 p.m. at UC Irvine’s 178 Humanities Hall as part of the 24 Frames Per Second film society’s series. Admission: donations accepted. Information: (714) 856-8596 and (714) 856-0394. FO Director Jean Renoir, second from left, is also part of “The Rules of the Game” cast.