Arthur Goldhammer, On the Rules of the Game -- Page 22

On The Rules of the Game

by Arthur Goldhammer





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On The Rules of the Game

by Arthur Goldhammer


Jean Renoir's masterpiece, The Rules of the Game (1939), changed film forever. For some this cinematic epitome of the human comedy is an addicting pleasure: Truffaut saw the film fifteen times. But it failed to please its first audiences in the somber weeks preceding the outbreak of hostilities in World War II. No doubt a movie so exuberant was out of tune with its time. But even the sympathetic René Clair, who watched the opening with Renoir, was bewildered: "What exactly were you trying to do?" he asked. Renoir, according to his biographer Célia Bertin, answered, "I don't care." And indeed the film is easier to like than to understand.

The difficulty is not with the plot, which is conventional enough. The handsome young aviator André Jurieux flies solo across the Atlantic to impress a woman with whom he is infatuated, Christine, marquise de La Chesnaye. He is disappointed when she fails to meet his plane at Le Bourget. His friend Octave contrives to have him invited to the country château of Christine's husband, Robert, marquis de La Chesnaye. Robert allows himself to be persuaded by Octave's suggestion that he might well rid himself of his troublesome mistress, Geneviève de Marras, by interesting her in André, at the same time putting an end to whatever flirtation might be going on between André and Christine. But Christine accidentally discovers Robert's infidelity, and her reaction sets in motion a chain of events that leads to André's murder by Schumacher, the marquis's gamekeeper, in a case of double mistaken identity.1

Renoir's masterpiece thus hinges on a moment of recognition: the marquise's discovery, as she peers through a lens, of her husband's infidelity. It is a moment of recognition that effects a reversal in the behavior, though not in the fortunes, of the heroine. Recognition (anagnorisis) leading to reversal (peripeteia): the drama would fit Aristotle's definition of tragedy were it not for the fact that the marquis will not permit, and has the power to prevent, his wife's fall into disgrace. The tragedy hangs fire. Despite the murder things will go on as they have always done. The rich and powerful can be counted on to put a proper face on deeds most foul.

Such a dénouement invites cynical comment, and Renoir does not fail to provide it. When the marquis calls Jurieux's murder an accident, Saint-Aubin is derisive: "A new definition of the word accident."2 But he is immediately pulled up short by the hoary Nestorian general, who, on each previous occasion when Saint-Aubin has given the cynical interpretation of things, has rebuked him in similar terms. What the marquis has just displayed, the general says, is "class," and "that's getting rare, Saint-Aubin, that's getting rare."3

The comment is of course double-edged. For those disposed to accept Saint-Aubin's cynicism, it confirms that "class" (the adjective or substantive of value) inheres in "the ruling class" as silver, the metonymy, inheres in silverware. "Class" becomes a synonym for the haute couture that dresses up naked power. But the general's previous remarks incline us to take him not as a doddering dupe but as a wise fool (the wise fool, one might say, because the kind of wisdom, or folly, he represents always plays the same role, which is to insist that things are on occasion just what they appear to be, that at times a cigar is just a cigar). The cynic wants to short-cut the difficult business of interpretation by asserting that everything is the opposite of what it seems. In some circumstances this can give the cynic the appearance of perspicacity, but more often it signifies that he is just as deluded as the person who says, always and everywhere, that things are simply as they appear (an enforcement of simplicity that is simply foolish, not at all wise). Saint-Aubin's cynicism feigns a privileged access to the truth: he thinks he knows how Jurieux died, on orders of the marquis, who has presumably chosen the shortest way to rid himself of a rival. Earlier in the film, in another aside to the general, Saint-Aubin reacted to Christine's assertion that her relations with Jurieux had unfolded "under the sign of friendship, which is so rare."4 On this Saint-Aubin's comment was, "It's all in the family"5—his way of insisting on his certainty that what exists between Christine and Jurieux is not "amitié" but love. But his clear picture of the situation was as wrong then as it is now (though it serves, with economical artistry, to paint Saint-Aubin himself as a blackguard for whom such a murder is thinkable). He is misled by his mechanical formula for converting appearances into realities. The truth, contrary to what Saint-Aubin believes, cannot be captured in a still image; it requires a moving picture.

We thus come back to the moment of reversal. The instrument that makes possible the marquise's recognition of infidelity is a small telescope or binocular, a lens. But what Christine sees and, because she sees it with her own eyes, mistakes for the truth, is not the truth but only a moment, as Hegel might say, in truth's unfolding: the affair between Robert and Geneviève de Marras has a long history, and what the lens shows, though a revelation to the woman who holds it, is the end of the affair, which Christine mistakenly takes to be proof of its existence. (The owl of Minerva flies at night, so to speak.) Christine "reifies" her husband's feelings, turns them into a thing rather than a flux, and so misconstrues them. She then sets about verifying, with the rigor of a positivist, what she now posits the truth to be: in her rival's bedroom she puts leading questions, elicits the expected answers, and puts down their coincidence with the predictions of her own theory as confirmation of that theory's validity. By thus treating human nature as if it were physical nature, she transgresses one of the boundaries that ought properly to be drawn around certain methods of inquiry, and it is this transgression that precipitates the tragedy.

One might also put the matter in another way. What the marquise sees through the lens is confirmation of a theory she already holds, a theory she cannot help holding. For she is an adult woman in a society where adultery, apparently, is so much the norm that her having spent a few hours with Jurieux "under the sign of friendship" can be taken by everyone, including Jurieux himself, as evidence if not of her complicity at least of her readiness to be complicit in an extramarital affair. Hence she must believe if not in her husband's adultery at least in its possibility. Yet she has repressed this theoretical belief, so that when La Chesnaye questions her she can respond that she "trusts him completely." The visible evidence of deceit triggers the return of this repressed theory, and the marquise reacts to this return as to a trauma: the integrity of her conception of herself as a woman is violated, and she is suddenly transformed, like a wounded beast, into a quite different woman, a faithless wife who, having withheld herself in stiff innocence inadvertently magnified by Nora Gregor's stiff acting, can plunge headlong into affairs, or at least promises of affairs, with three men: Saint-Aubin, Jurieux, Octave.

This return of the repressed can be interpreted in psychodynamic as well as epistemological terms. What Christine sees, or thinks she sees, is a man making love to a woman. This is a scene she is not supposed to witness. In fact, it is the primal scene, which none of us is supposed to witness. She sees, enacted, what she already knows men of this class and in this society do to women who are not their wives, and she remembers having seen, or imagined seeing, enacted what she, as a child, already knew all men do to women who are their wives. Perhaps she took that discovery, which was not really a discovery, to be a trauma too. (That what she sees is more memory than reality is underscored by the fact that Octave—played by Renoir, the director behind the lens—stands behind her as she peers at Robert and Geneviève in the distance. He cannot see what she sees, not because he lacks the magnifying technology of the lens, but because she is seeing more with her inner than with her outer eye.) Perhaps she denied her complicity in the injury, her guilty desire to take her mother's place, to be loved by her husband as he loves his mistress. If so, it might explain (along with Nora Gregor's imperfect mastery of French) the curious contrasts in her vocal mannerisms and body language. With the marquis her movements are as stiff as her speech is stilted: she is an ornament of the household, like one of his mechanical dolls. Yet with the maid Lisette she inhabits her body differently. In her negligée she displays nonchalance. Her speech, less formal, is also more playful. And she exhibits a prurient curiosity about Lisette's lovers. On sexual matters she is not the innocent the plot more than the marquis requires. One goad to her curiosity with Lisette, moreover, is that among the maid's lovers is Octave, Christine's childhood companion, her father's protegé, the man with whom the girl she once was had perhaps fantasized about enacting what she had seen, or imagined she had seen, her father enact with her mother.

Octave's role is a curious one. It is of course one of the two elements (along with the mistaken identity leading to a death) that connects Renoir's film with one of its two chief precursors in the French comedic tradition, Alfred de Musset's Les Caprices de Marianne (the other being Beaumarchais's Le Mariage de Figaro, to which I shall return). Musset's Octave, though a drunkard and ne'er-do-well, is blessed with a silver tongue: he is a poet—and as the marquis says of Renoir's Octave, a dangerous poet. (For the marquis, "dangerous" is a qualification of poet; but for Renoir, who puts these words in his mouth as a description of himself—for Renoir, who plays Octave, who is Octave—they mean, I think, you are a poet and therefore dangerous. Are not all poets dangerous? Plato says so, and for just the reason that poets are shown to be dangerous in both Les Caprices and La Règle: they subvert order. That is why Renoir likes to play off French theatrical and Viennese musical classicism, against the metaphor of the theater in general as a confining cadre or order, which cinema explodes.) Because he is a poet Octave is enlisted by Coelio to serve as an intermediary between him and Marianne, the wife of Judge Claudio. His task is to persuade Marianne that Coelio is indeed "in love" with her, where the attributes of love have been defined by a long tradition: love, for the male, is a state of intoxication, of rapture, of loss of will, of abjection. Abjection particularly: love is a reversal of what everyone knows to be the actual state of affairs, that men dominate and women serve. Romantic love is love because it temporarily suspends this reality. The man declares himself to be abject, the lady subjects him to ordeals, and if he proves his mettle she then yields. But when she yields her power dissipates. The man has added her to his conquests. By the time Musset writes, this tradition is moribund. If Coelio, quixotic prisoner of convention that he is, still behaves as though it bound him, neither Octave nor Marianne can believe in a genre that, since the invention of courtly love in the twelfth century, had rung all its changes. And one of the last of those changes was precisely the introduction of the intermediary—Octave's role—whose gifted tongue is capable of overcoming the wised-up woman's reluctance to believe in the lover's mere outward signs of abjection. The intermediary paints a portrait of inward abjection more persuasive than a kneeling or sighing knight. Language externalizes the inner exaltation or bewilderment or derangement into which love has plunged the lover. In the theatrical tradition that Musset concludes and parodies, language signifies desire.

Even more, language becomes desire. That was the most recent convention, and would still be the convention when Rostand wrote Cyrano. The intermediary, who may begin by representing the love of another, becomes infected by that love; or the power of words is so great that speaking words of love in another man's place creates the state of intoxication that love is, because in the words the desire becomes present—the word is made flesh, as it were. When Octave fulfills his mission on behalf of Coelio, Marianne stops him: "Get up, Octave! Really, if someone were to come in and hear you, wouldn't they think you were pleading on your own behalf?"6 Musset's Marianne (having inherited both the intelligence and the marivaudage of Marivaux's Marianne) knows the convention inside out: she knows that Octave's words are a "plea," that is, a rhetorical utterance intended to bring about a desired result, not a representation of the truth, and she knows, too—despite the slip of the tongue (Octave says "my heart is full") that might elsewhere signify that the agent has become the actor—what Octave's game is. She is willing to have him for a lover precisely because he is as little a dupe of the game as she is.

Renoir's Octave is not like Musset's, except in one respect: he aspires high and sleeps low. He is the one character in the film who crosses, physically, the boundary between the servants' world and the masters'. (The marquis and marquise cross the boundary too, but only in conversation, he with the poacher Marceau, she with the maid Lisette—the film's second adulterous couple). Musset's Octave explains his sexual tastes in a remarkable exchange with Marianne. She says she thought that "with wine it's the same as with women." There are the noble vintages and the vin du peuple, and a man of taste like Octave can be counted on to know the difference. Since he drinks fine wine, he ought to lust after fine women (for example, herself). He responds: "How long do you think you need to court the bottle you see there to win its favors?"7 Courting—the elaborate linguistic ritual of representing desire, of converting desire into language—has become a transparent game whose conventions they both know well enough to mock, hence a bore. Why bother? Fine wine offers no resistance, nor does the femme du peuple.

In 1939 language is no longer necessary to the romantic illusion. Technology has created a new, artificial immediacy. The role of the lens in the central scene of recognition, the primal scene, is one instance. But Renoir alerts us to the importance of technology as mediator from the film's first frames: the opening shot is of a radio studio, and the camera then follows cables out to the airfield where Jurieux has just landed. When the reporter asks him to describe his heroic feat, he demurs: "It wasn't me, it was the equipment."8 The machine was the hero, the man merely the pilot. An engineer then describes the plane (a Caudron, the type of plane Renoir flew in the war). The next scenes unfold in sequence, and the radio that figures in each of them establishes a continuity of consciousness as well as time. We enter the marquise's bedroom, in fact, through the back of the radio: the camera pans up from its initial focus on the vacuum tubes and condensers to reveal Christine's unease. Jurieux declares his love for her, speaking as a lover immediately into her ear, but by the miracle of radio he can do this without being present. A space is thus created for a complex reaction to unfold, a reaction that cannot be suspected, as any response in Jurieux's presence could and would have been suspected, of bad faith, because Christine reacts for herself, not for the other. Jurieux proclaims his love, its authenticity guaranteed not by high-flown poetry but by the immediacy of modern communication; Christine, meanwhile, does her toilette. She asks her maid about her lovers, about Octave. She asks what these lovers do, not because she is innocent of sex but because Lisette knows what Christine can never know but is intensely curious about: how a femme du peuple, not bound by the rules of the game, makes love. Lisette tells her that men are insatiable.

The marquis, in his room, can also hear. The publicity of Jurieux's profession of love tells us at once that in this modern game of love the husband will not be the dupe; whatever happens will happen under his eyes. Obligingly, he even provides Christine with an acceptable explanation for the private violation of propriety on her part that led to this public violation of Jurieux's: what Christine and André share is an amitié amoureuse, a sort of synthesis of the thesis amour and its antithesis amitié. Also tuned to the same wavelength is Robert's mistress Geneviève, and neither she nor the card players in her apartment are in any doubt about the meaning of Jurieux's words: they are the chorus, the voice of convention, which assumes adultery as a fact, because this is what society assumes.

Marx said of capitalist society that it was one in which relations between human beings are replaced by relations between things. In Renoir's film, which concerns the elite of an advanced capitalist society, relations between human beings are mediated by things—man-made things. Indeed, it is this substitution of technical for human mediation that defines this society as advanced. This transformation of society has resulted in a transformation of romantic love, a transformation that Musset glimpsed. But since the full realization of that transformation entailed the replacement of an outworn rhetoric by novel devices, Musset could not fully register the change, which in any case had not yet fully worked itself through. The camera enables Renoir to represent a change that could not easily be caught in language since it was, in essence, an absence of language. Thus the lens—the lens of the glass the marquise uses in the hunt—is the film's central image, as well as the technical condition of its possibility.

It was the perfection, moreover, of new wide-aperture lenses and fast film that permitted Renoir to move beyond the close-up to the deep-focus scenes that were the film's primary stylistic innovation and its chief attraction to the younger filmmakers of the New Wave. But Renoir was not a man to avail himself of a device of style simply as a flourish. The greatness of La Règle du jeu—its claim on the history of culture and not just the history of film—lies in its melding of two distinct comedic traditions, the traditions of Figaro and Marianne, and it was deep-focus that made this melding possible.

Figaro gives us the château as the world. It is a world of pairings and of pairings within pairings. The servant's world is the image of the master's world as man is the image of God. But the question is whether one is the original and the other the copy, or whether each is the image of the other, the reflection of a reflection (the original being that eighteenth-century utopia in which all men are created equal). At stake is the hierarchy of the ancien régime, which depends on the master's identification with, or usurpation of, the creator's position. Beaumarchais is an illusionist. He gives Figaro the gift of the circus clown who can create the illusion of a mirror by duplicating the movements of the Other in inverse perfection. Moving within a world—the château—clearly of the master's creation, Figaro creates the illusion that the master's moiety is neither more nor less than a reflection of the servant's moiety. Renoir uses the device of pairing but insists on a vestigial asymmetry whose locus is sex. For the marquis, who has other pleasures, sex is an amusement; for Schumacher, who has none, it is deadly serious. Only the servants who have other pleasures—Marceau, who has the gift of humor, and Lisette, who has her erotic attachment to the marquise—can enjoy, in a relative sense, the freedom of the masters.

What is the game in Rules of the Game? The superficial answer is that it is the game of marital infidelity: society diverts erotic energies that might otherwise be destructive by permitting certain men to appropriate certain women for the purpose of temporary gratification. The rules are: that serious (i.e., legal or financial) claims must be avoided; that appearances must be maintained; that certain proprieties must be respected ("the young," Lisette reminds Octave, "should go with the young, the old with the old"). André and Christine are presented as neophytes in this game. Octave must explain the rules to both. He tells André that Christine is not "like a good glass of wine" (the simile directly recalls Musset's). And he tells Christine that her friendly overtures to André can be, and have been, taken (mistaken?) for a gamer's moves. We are asked to believe that Christine, as a foreigner, simply doesn't know the rules and that this ignorance explains her violations. When Geneviève threatens to expose Robert's infidelity, she warns him that he will lose Christine, who won't understand that he was simply playing a harmless game: "A Parisian woman would understand. Her, no."9 After Octave explains the rules, Christine concedes that she has erred: "Then all the wrongs are mine" (alors, j'ai tous les torts), she tells him in her fractured French. "Not all" Octave replies, "some,"10 as if he knows or suspects that her ignorance is partly feigned, that it is perhaps the master-stroke of a consummately skilled player.

Why do I suspect Christine of dissimulation? Because she is the only character in the film (except perhaps her niece Jackie, whose motives are undeveloped) who actively seeks a gratification more complex than this first-level game can conceivably provide. Octave has abandoned his ambitions; Robert disclaims the talent to have any ("for that you have to be talented,"11 he tells Marceau); André is a "modern hero" who "the minute he touches ground is like a child."12 Christine is the only character with adult desires. What does she want?

What do women want? Everything. Christine wants a lover who is also a friend. (Lisette, with the wisdom of le peuple, declares this to be impossible: "Friendship with a man! There's no such thing."13 Although the statement is given as a general truth, we are entitled to take it simply as an absence of desire that defines Lisette.) Christine wants children. (When Lisette points out that "children take a lot of time," Christine answers, "That's the nice thing. You don't think about anything else."14) Having children is "nice" because it distracts. Of what other things does Christine no longer wish to think? Of the diversion of romance, perhaps; of unheroic heroes like Jurieux; of the silly games that society plays; of one's husband's friendly, or fatherly, sexual indifference; of one's fatherly friend's repressed sexual longing; of the senselessness of a life whose chief amusement, the pointless slaughter of the hunt, one does not even find amusing; of a world in which "nothing is natural any more"15 and "everyone lies: druggists' ads, the government, the movies, the newspapers;"16 of the imminence of war (the time is November 1938). Christine wants food for the spirit (one of the card players in Geneviève's apartment alludes to the loss she must have suffered when transplanted from the pinnacle of Viennese cultural life to a milieu philistine by comparison, where the music is provided by automata).

So Christine is playing a different game from everyone else's. Hers is therefore a game of one player. In such a game any rules are self-imposed, and any cheating, if punished at all, must be self-punished. A one-player game is therefore a test of character, or perhaps more precisely, character is a game of one player. And the reason why Christine feels so violated by her verification of Robert's infidelity is that, his behavior having revealed that "for the past three years my life has been based on a lie,"17 her strategy has been all wrong. She sees how far from her goal she is. Her reaction is one of desperation. And in desperation she regresses, or, to put it another way, she steps out of character, she changes the rules of the game, of her game. She literally becomes a child again: the camera shows us this in the remarkable scene in the gun room when she says to Jurieux for the first time, "I love you, André", and he says, "I'd lost faith.". Having put aside her Chanel gowns for the evening's entertainment, she is wearing a Tyrolean dress that makes her look like a girl, and, in a circumstance where we might expect a close-up the camera shoots her from above and from an awkward medium distance, foreshortening the image so that, set against a fireplace in the background to her left, she looks half as tall as she had appeared a moment before saying "I love you." The adult woman Christine could never have uttered these words to Jurieux, who is more boy than man. But he (shot in closeup against a door, which emphasizes his adult size) fails to perceive the change and claims her as a man: the love in which he had lost faith was a love that never existed, the mundane love, the society love, the love of the infidelity game. This new declaration of love is from a little girl, not a woman: earlier Octave had tried to correct her behavior by saying "you're not twelve years old any more,"18 but now she is twelve again. She has reentered the world of childhood. Earlier her childish behavior (with Octave on the bed, for example) had been play-acting; now she tells Octave "I've had enough of this theater,"19 of the theater, that is, of adulthood, which she finds so difficult ("It's hard," she has told Robert, "to live a lie."20) His response, for all that it contains of the truth, characteristically fails to register her pain: "A lie? A lie? You're exaggerating, my dear friend."21). Freed of the burden of the theater, of the actress's burden of seeming convincingly to belong to a world not of her making, Christine returns in earnest to "the mood of childhood, when we were ignorant of the comic, when we were incapable of jokes and when we had no need of humor to make us feel happy in our life" (Freud, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, quoted by Stanley Cavell in Pursuits of Happiness, whose insights into the comedy of [re]marriage have encouraged me here).

Throughout the film free play is made with the notion of childhood. (The ambiguity of the French jeu is important here: game is also play, and play is also play-acting.) "For me," Octave tells Christine, "you're still the child from Salzburg."22 You're supposed to be a hero but in fact "you're nothing but a little kid,"23 Octave tells André. Robert fills his life with mechanical toys. Marceau and Lisette chase each other around the kitchen. "Robert is truly a child," Christine tells Geneviève, "incapable of hiding anything."24 Incapable of hiding anything: if that is the criterion of the "true child," then obviously the society depicted here is the antithesis of childhood, for it is a society built on masks from top to bottom. (The best example of the donning of one is the serving maid who, about to enter the main hall with a tray of dishes, composes a face that has been laughing openly about the presumed illicit relation between Jurieux and Christine; the camera obliquely catches the moment when the mask falls over the true visage as class prepares to meet class.)

Childhood is a paradise, but like what the French Bible calls the Paradis Terrestre and ours calls the Garden of Eden, it is a paradise we cannot reenter. Film, it has been said, participates in this essentially human longing for a foreclosed past. Jay Cantor, for example, pays tribute to Stanely Cavell, who "places Film in the volume marked Memory; for films, like memories, give us a world that is ours, yet that we are barred from entering." For one miraculous moment, though, in the resurrection of Christine's father, the great Viennese conductor Stiller, André and Christine do reenter the past. It is an explicitly dionysiac scene: set in the moonlight; Christine with vine leaves and flowers in her hair, which streams in wild dishevelment; Octave purified by a ritual of initiation in which, earlier, he had dressed as a bear (like the little girls of Brauron in the Greek festival known as the Brauronia); and both having drunk too much. The natural order of things has been overturned; but it can last only a moment. And even if it were otherwise, a child cannot conduct an orchestra; a child cannot bear children. Perhaps most important, a girl cannot marry her father. ("The problem," Octave tells Christine, "is that when you think about your father, you're not fair to other men."25 But earlier he has told André, in response to the aviator's reminder that "you are not her father," that with her father dead he has assumed the conductor's place, if not as a conductor of a orchestras then at least as a conductor of the daughter's life—which is indeed Octave's sin, the sin that makes him, for the space of this movie, not the "failure" and "parasite" he accuses himself of being and outside the frame no doubt is but "a dangerous poet.") This Paradise is paradisaical, in part, because it is suffused with the future's unfulfilled but not yet thwarted wishes. This past, the past that matters to us, is a creation of the present; it has no independent existence.

Leading up to this dionysiac moment is the breakdown of the order of which the château is the embodiment. Run away with me, Geneviève urges Robert, and when he protests that he cannot leave "the property,"26 she asks why it matters, "ce n'est qu'une maison." Maison—the word (unaccountably misrepresented in the subtitles as "château") is meant to diminish, to disparage all that a château symbolizes not only as architecture but as the assertion of an order in the world. In reply Robert can manage only a gasp of exasperation. That the importance of the château needs explanation is already a sign that it has lost its importance. The camera has made this breakdown palpable by showing us the space in which it occurs. Rooms are shot in deep focus. The lens is not stationary, but its movements are stately and underscore the structure of the maison by sweeping, as the eye of the awed visitor might, from limit to limit of its ample rooms. Thus invested with the imposing decorousness of the surroundings, the camera takes on the "gentleman's gentleman" eye of the butler Corneille. (Is it an accident that the name instantly makes the camera the representative as well of the classical theatrical tradition? And Corneille, incidentally, was the author of Mélite, the comedy from which Musset drew Les Caprices.) The camera casts its disapproving eye on the frenzy of the action, as the game warden Schumacher attempts to avenge Marceau's poaching on his wife, as Christine's fugue unfolds, as the great mechanical organ slips from raunchy raucousness into a cacophony of grinds and thumps, as death does its macabre dance (the skeletons carry umbrella frames, nonexistent protection against the heavens' empty threat). Doors, which in previous long shots down castle corridors have emphasized the strict cloisonnement, the rigorously respected privacy that allows society's game to continue, are now thrown open, revealing secret lusts, acts of violence, uncontrolled emotions. (The marquis, at several points, signals his dissatisfaction with the existing order of things by stating his aversion to fences, barriers, and walls. He wants no fences, he tells Schumacher, but neither does he want rabbits—an insistence on order without discipline that Schumacher, the Teuton, cannot comprehend.)

Indeed, the situation has been created by the marquis's disdain of walls, by his belief in freedom. When Octave suggests that he invite Jurieux to La Colinière, Robert recognizes that, in a world whose principle is not honor but freedom, his wife's fidelity is meaningless if coerced. Octave has just uttered his devastating pronouncement—the verdict of a man who believes himself dead—on the modern world: "What is truly dreadful is that everyone has his reasons."27 (In the hierarchical world of honor, only one reason counts: God's, which those who rule the world take also to be theirs.) Humane, speaking for the spirit of the Lumières, Robert answers Octave: "Yes, and I think everyone should be free to express them fully. I don't believe in walls."28 Man is free, Kant would say, only if he is obedient, not to the will of the sovereign, but to the concept of law. Later, when everything has collapsed, of course, Robert in sorrow reverts to a more primitive view. The Arabs, he tells Marceau, had it right when they created harems, where a man could have his favorite without making the others miserable. But surely he remembers Montesquieu and Les Lettres Persanes: Uzbek, who believes he is an enlightened despot, is instructed by Roxane's treachery that freedom must be universal or illusory; if freedom exists, then no sovereign is free, or no man can be sovereign. These two scenes, which frame the theatrical unity of the action at La Colinière, situate that action within the larger tragedy, the European tragedy whose unfolding coincided with the conception and making of La Règle du Jeu. If Christine's derangement is the subject of the drama within, Europe's derangement is the subject of the drama without. But how are outside and inside related?

The world of the Enlightenment, the handiwork of the hidden clockmaker God who set the machinery in motion and then retired to his country seat—a world in which the automata that are the marquis's fetish were not a bizarre curiosity but a miracle, an assertion of man's increasing ability by his own efforts to create the animal-machine, to substitute himself for the Creator—that world has broken down. It is no longer a matter, as in Beaumarchais, of adjusting the mechanism by shifting its driving force from the count to Figaro. The machine is out of control. (Mechanical breakdown is a repeated motif in the film: the automobile crash, the broken birds, Robert's lighter that will not light in his adieu to Geneviève, the winding down of the mechanical organ). In four scenes that detach themselves from the body of the film by visual distinctiveness, we leave behind the château-as-world metaphor. There is the opening scene in which an airplane descends out of darkness onto a chaotic mob. There is the accident scene, in which Octave and André are shot (initially) from the ditch, from the point of view of the wrecked machine, against an empty sky. There is the scene of the hunt. And there is the final sequence leading up to Jurieux's death, which includes an idyll in a greenhouse—Paradis Terrestre—observed from the outside by Marceau and Schumacher, both excluded, both banished, both postlapsarian, formerly enemies, now united in violent jealousy of the happiness of the other. In each case the camera associates us, the spectators, with a source of upheaval, disorder, tumult. In the crowd scene we are part of the crowd. Our view moves with it; we cannot stay focused for long on one point; we catch a fleeting glimpse of the plane as it lands; we must fight through the crush to join the hero. In the crash scene our sight is identified with the machine; insofar as we have allowed ourselves to become machines the sky above is empty for us; a washed-out expanse. The quarreling men are characters out of Beckett avant la lettre, filling up the time while waiting for Godot. In the hunt the point of view shifts several times. We see the beaters and the shooters from the animals' vantage, as part of nature; but we also see the animals die; we are the shooters, disrupting nature for our sport. And in the final sequence we look in on Paradise from the outside along with the two killers. Now read the scenes in sequence: mass man, mechanization, exaltation of violence, leading to murder, to the extinction of a flawed but plausible Earthly Paradise. The film is located precisely in time: November 1938, a few months after Munich. It appeared in July 1939. In a month or two the world would be at war. The final cut of Rules would be blown up by Allied bombs in 1942.

Renoir, who conceived the film in January of 1939, once described it—we do not know with what jest in his voice—as his "response to the Munich accords." If we think of the response to a political event as, typically, a lugubrious manifesto—there were many in those months after Munich—the statement is farfetched. But if we think of Munich—and many in 1939 did think of it—as the announcement of an impending apocalypse, why should we be surprised that an artist as inventive as Renoir responded by producing a film as boldly imaginative in its way as the Book of Revelation? Or, if such a model is thought too august for a mere film, we need look back, perhaps, no farther than Victor Hugo. Renoir specifically invokes Hugo in the film: when Marceau, the poacher, is polishing boots in the château kitchen, he cites first a line from Corneille (whose name, as we have seen, functions in the film as a metonymy for the crumbling classical order) and then a line from Hugo: "L'oeil était dans la tombe et regardait Cain." Hugo invoking the Bible in La Conscience thus anticipates the murder of the Frenchman Jurieux by the German Schumacher with the complicity of the Frenchman Marceau: Cain and Abel—brother kills brother, or at least frère ennemi kills frère ennemi. But the line also puts the spectator in mind of another poem by that dangerous poet, Hugo, in which he writes of that dangerous angel, the Antichrist (recall that early in the film Octave calls Christine a "dangerous angel" and Robert calls Octave a "dangerous poet"):

Tantôt ses traits au ciel emprunteront leurs charmes;

Tel qu'un ange, vêtu de radieuses armes,

Tout son corps brillera de reflets éclatants,

Et ses yeux souriront, baignés de douces larmes,

Comme la jeune aurore au front du beau printemps.


Tantôt, hideux amant de la nuit solitaire,

Noir dragon, déployant l'aile aux ongles de fer,

Pâle, et s'épouvantant de son propre mystère,

Du sein profané de la terre

Ses pas feront monter les vapeurs de l'enfer.


The description might be of Jurieux in the film's opening sequence. On his lonely lover's mission he descends from the heavens in darkness, hideux amant de la nuit solitaire, riding on wings, not of iron, perhaps, but of aluminum. He is frightened of his own mystery: the myth of the modern hero. But later, when Christine confesses her love, we see him wearing his angelic mask, his features suffused with heaven-borrowed charms, and then he steps in front of the gun cabinet: vêtu de radieuses armes, his body is luminous and his eyes smile, bathed in sweet tears. And we hear, later, that "on verra .. les morts tressaillir au bruit de sa parole,/Comme s'ils allaient s'éveiller," just as the dead do dance on the stage of La Colinière. There is no need, I think, to belabor the comparison: the apocalypse implicit in the four detached sequences of the film that I have singled out is clear even without the Hugo parallel. But the Hugo identification has the merit of pointing up Renoir's self-consciousness as an artist in film. He might have said, as Hugo did in Réponse à un acte d'accusation, "Ces grandes questions d'art et de liberté,/Voyons-les, j'y consens, par le moindre côté,/Et par le petit bout de la lorgnette [that lens again]. ... Sur les bataillons d'alexandrins carrés,/Je fis souffler un vent révolutionnaire." Like Hugo's, Renoir's work is impregnated with the old forms and therefore pregnant with the new. After The Rules of the Game the movies were never the same.

[end of text]



1 A word about names: in the videotape version of the film that I have seen most recently, the names as given in the credits differ from the names that appear in the English subtitles. Thus Jurieux is also Jurieu, La Chesnaye is also La Cheysniet, and so on. Here I have followed the spellings in Célia Bertin, Jean Renoir(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1991).

2 "Nouvelle définition du mot 'accident.'"

3 "Ça devient rare, mon cher Saint-Aubin, ça devient rare."

4 "Sous le signe si rare de l'amitié."

5 "Tout cela se passe en famille."

6 "Relevez-vous, Octave. En vérité, si quelqu'un entrait ici, ne croirait-on pas, à vous entendre, que c'est pour vous que vous plaidez?"

7 "Combien de temps pensez-vous qu'il faille faire la cour à la bouteille que vous voyez, pour obtenir ses faveurs?" (p. 72)

8 "C'est pas moi, c'était le matériel."

9 "Une Parisienne comprendrait, elle pas."

10 Pas tous, quelques-uns.

11 "Pour cela il faut être doué,"

12 "Dès qu'il touche la terre est comme un enfant."

13 L'amitié avec un homme? Autant parler de la lune en plein midi.

14 Ça occupe beaucoup. --C'est ce qui est beau. On ne pense plus à autre chose.

15 "Il n'y a plus rien de naturel"

16 "Tout le monde ment: les prospectus des pharmaciens, le gouvernement, le cinéma, les journaux"

17 "Depuis trois ans ma vie est basée sur un mensonge"

18 "Tu n'as pas toujours 12 ans,"

19 "J'en ai assez de ce théâtre,"

20 "C'est dur," she has told Robert, "de vivre un mensonge."

21 "Mensonge, mensonge, vous exagérez, chère amie"

22 "Pour moi tu es resté l'enfant de Salzbourg,"

23 "Tu es le dernier des gosses."

24 "Robert est un véritable enfant, incapable de rien cacher."

25 "Le problème," Octave tells Christine, "c'est que quand tu penses à ton père, tu es injuste avec les autres hommes."

26 "La propriété,"

27 "Ce qui est vraiment terrible, c'est que tout le monde a ses raisons."

28 "Oui, et je veux que tout le monde soit libre de les exprimer pleinement. Je ne crois pas aux murs."