Rules of the Game

My sister-in-law, a chemistry teacher, introduced me to “Downton Abbey” when it first appeared on PBS a few years ago. Although I could see right away that it was quality TV, I chafed at the thought of a series created by the screenwriter of “Gosford Park” that resembled that film so much. “Gosford Park” was long enough, I figured, and “Downton” never made it to the top of the queue of TV series I ought to be checking out.

This week, with the third season about to be released, I face the option of either catching up with a marathon of the first two years and joining the communion of fans, or ignoring it for another year – relegating it to the status of football season, or the annual arrival of morel mushrooms, things that smart people somehow get passionate about, but that are lost on me. (The fact that I have that first option, of catching up in a hurry through a combination of DVDs and streaming, must be why we are living in a golden age of TV right now. Series producers are not just locked in a three-way fight for the biggest fraction of a TV audience on any given night, like they were when I was a kid. Now they’re trying to cultivate a loyal following, and can tell a story that requires us to have seen every past episode in order to “get it.”)

I opted to punt for a while longer – a metaphor I use with apologies to football fans –  but when I woke up on New Years Day, in that wakefulness you get from a half night’s sleep cut short by the blood stream sobering up, I couldn’t resist getting re-acquainted with “Rules of the Game,” the 1939 treasure written and directed by Jean Renoir. I know it’s geeky film school wanking to make such comparisons, but “Rules of the Game” is still better than “Gosford Park,” for one, and better than any other film of its genre, the comedy of manners, that I’ve gotten around to seeing. I’ve now seen it two and a half times in 2013. It gave us the ground rules for a satisfying story like this by giving the servants so much screen time, and making their contributions affect important moments throughout the story.

The characters are sad aristocrats and social climbers, who are often so frustrated by the manners required of them that they turn to their servants, and their friends’ servants, for reality checks. Although it certainly has clearly drawn characters, you don’t enjoy a story like this for the depth of feeling you get from any one person’s predicament – although it’s not bad on that account either. Mostly you admire the unfolding of the plot, which is full of formidable antagonists and a dizzying series of re-alignments of interests.

You know you’re a fan of a film when you overlook its faults, and I don’t mind the scenes devoted exclusively to exposition, or the characters’ unbelievable capacity for forgiveness, or even the enormous changes of heart that the heroine Christine de La Chesnaye undergoes in the course of one drunken evening. Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” its only peer I can think of, has a similar beauty, but looks like a cheap studio production by comparison.

Nora Gregor 2

Nora Gregor in “Rules of the Game.”

You also can’t ignore a film’s historical moment while you’re appreciating it, and knowing now what happened to France, and French Jews, in the years right after ’39 makes the sadness of this “comedy” so much more palpable. Nora Gregor, who played Christine, was a Jew whose husband was an Austrian nationalist politician who left his aristocratic first wife for her. They had fled to France together before she made this film. After the war, she committed suicide in Argentina.

 

 

 

During the second time through, I hit “pause” a few dozen times to write a synopsis.

 

“Rules of the Game” Synopsis

With great fanfare, aviator André Jurieu arrives in France from a transatlantic flight. He announces on national radio that he is heartbroken because a certain women isn’t there, mystifying listeners.

That woman, Christine, apparently very rich, hears his speech on the radio while she gets dressed in her formal wear. She questions her servant Lisette, who says it’s okay to have lovers while married, but that true friendship with a man is impossible.

Her husband Robert de La Chesnaye, a dilettante collector of mechanical music devices, was also listening to the broadcast, and knows André was talking about Christine, who naively let André fall in love with her by spending platonic time with him. He asks, in essence, “How could you have let that poor man misunderstand you?”

He phones HIS lover, Genevieve de Marras, to plan a visit the following day. At Genevieve’s house, she is entertaining a clique of bridge players, who give us the backstory on La Chesnaye and Christine: she is an Austrian and doesn’t understand Parisian society’s rules about affairs.

The next day, La Chesnaye visits Genevieve and proposes breaking off their long-term affair and being faithful to his wife. She says she loves him and that if they break up they’ll both be miserable.

Meanwhile, André is distraught and drives his car too fast and crashes it – nearly killing himself and his best friend Octave.

The charismatic Octave, a musician (played by hulky Jean Renoir himself), refuses to ride any further with André. Standing on a tuft of grass against a bare sky, the only set in the film that isn’t palatial, Octave tries laying down the law to André: You broke the rules by talking about your extra-marrital love on the radio, THAT’S why you ruined things with Christine. He adds further backstory, that he studied music with Christine’s father in Vienna and is sworn to be a loyal friend and protector of her. André, however, fights back: “If I don’t see her again, I’ll die.” Octave agrees to help arrange a meeting between them.

While Ocatave is visiting Christine at the La Chesnaye’s city house, he is familiar to everyone. La Chesnaye tells Lisette that her husband, the game-keeper at his country estate, wants Lisette assigned to live there with him, but Lisette wants to stay with Christine.

Octave persuades Christine to invite André to a weekend at their country house by saying that either André might kill himself, or he himself might have to say good-bye to her forever out of loyalty.

Then he persuades La Chesnaye himself to invite André to a hunting party he is planning at their country estate the following weekend. La Chesnaye reasons that he might as well let his wife clear the air with André under his roof, where she will make a clean break, rather than meet him in secret. Octave even implies that they might set André and Genevieve up and take care of both of problems.

 

Act Two

The La Chesnayes arrive at their country house, on familiar terms with all the servants, and the gamekeeper Schumacher (“Shoo-Mocker” to the Austrian Christine, but “Shoo-mah-SHAY” to everyone else) is eager to see his wife Lisette.

While Schumacher is preparing the grounds for the hunting party, he catches a poacher-rabbit trapper named Marceau, but La Chesnaye, who considers the rabbits a nuisance, refuses to punish Marceau and even consents to give him a job as a domestic on his staff.

Others arrive, a supporting cast of dilettantes and low-level aristocrats, including Genevieve, who is delighted that André will be present – since André will presumably keep Christine occupied so she can have La Chesnaye to herself.

The servants and guests all eagerly anticipate how André and Christine will get on, enjoying the scandal unfolding before them, but when André and Octave finally arrive, Christine breaks the tension by making a classy speech about the long hours she spent listening to André to build up his courage before his transatlantic flight.

The servants all eat together in the basement hall. Some don’t like that La Chesnaye is of Jewish descent, but the chef forcefully defends La Chesnaye on the grounds that he is a classy man compared to his last employer, and his religion is irrelevant. Marceau reports for duty and immediately starts flirting with Lisette.

The La Chesnayes and the guests all go to bed, Christine advising Lisette to pay no mind to Marceau and mind her husband instead. André is depressed at being so close and yet so far from Christine, and Octave tries consoling him.

The next day, the hunt takes place, the servants beating the woods from one direction to scare all the rabbits and game birds toward the guests, both men and women, who shoot as many as they can.

After the hunt, while the guests are telling gruesome and petty hunting stories, Genevieve pulls La Chesnaye aside and concedes that they must break up, and offers to leave, as long as she gets a tender farewell kiss of the sort she used to get when they met, pre-Christine. Christine, who is toying with borrowed field glasses, sees them and takes their kiss to mean the opposite: that their affair is enduring.

While Genevieve is packing to leave, however, Christine intervenes. They acknowledge that they both know about one another’s affairs, and Christine invites her to stay for a costume performance they’re planning for the mansion’s main hall that night.

Schumacher gives his wife Lisette a gift of a cloak with a hood, which she accepts but finds too functional and unflattering.

Marceau, assigned to shoe-shining detail, puts the moves on Lisette, which makes Schumacher threaten to kill him, before the butler intervenes.

The costume musical revue gets underway, a lavish affair for dozens more guests. All the main cast are perform a number, including Octave in a bear suit, and the guests are drinking and flirting, Lisette and Marceau even making out in the audience.

As death-themed dancing skeletons and ghosts take the stage, Christine has left the hall with a guest named St.-Aubin, so both La Chesnaye and André are searching the chateau for her. Genevieve wants to leave with La Chesnaye, and Schumacher is trying to keep his wife separated from Marceau.

First André finds Christine and St.-Aubin, who had been a particularly snobbish participant in the hunt. St.-Aubin challenges him to a duel, but André opts for an immediate fist-fight, nearly knocking him out, and pulling Christine aside.

Christine finally admits that she loves André. With a rack of hunting rifles in the background, she agrees to leave with him immediately, but André insists that the rules of the game require him to tell La Chesnaye to his face.

As La Chesnaye shows the audience his latest acquisition, a spectacular 19th-Century-type of music machine, Schumacher finds his wife in the kitchen. Unaware that she has Marceau in the pantry, he announces that he will take her to his home in Alsace, away from the  decadence.

When he discovers Marceau, Schumacher chases him into the party. While trying to restrain his gamekeeper, La Chesnaye discovers Christine in the process of telling André that they must leave now or never. André and La Chesnaye have a fistfight, and Octave whisks Christine outside.

Schumacher now has a pistol, but the guests think that his gunshots are fake, part of the masquerade.

Genevieve, drunk, becomes hysterical over the gunshots, and La Chesnaye and André restrain her and carry her to bed, and eventually the butler’s staff disarms Schumacher.

 

ACT THREE

The party winds down. The butler reports to La Chesnaye about the damage to the house caused by Shumacher, and La Chesnaye fires him on the spot. Lisette opts to stay instead of leave with her husband, and La Chesnaye fires Marceau too.

André and La Chesnaye have a heart-to-heart about Christine, pondering who could possibly make her happy.

Outside, Lisette finds Christine and Octave. Christine explains that she hooked up with St.-Aubin because she was angry at everyone else for not telling her about her husband and Genevieve during her whole marriage. Octave says that lies are normal in contemporary society. Christine wants to walk with Octave, so Lisette gives her hooded cloak to her.

Marceau finds Schumacher weeping on the road, and tries cheering him up.

Christine and Octave, talk about old times with her father, and stroll into the greenhouse. Octave opens up about how hard life is as a musician, and what a failure he believes he is, and Christine vows to love and protect him. They kiss.

Marceau and Schumacher see them kissing, and mistakenly think Octave is kissing Lisette, since she’s wearing her hood. Christine and Octave plan to run away, and Octave goes inside to get their coats. Schumacher, meanwhile, vows to kill them.

Inside, Lisette intervenes, and tells Octave it’s wrong, since Christine is better suited to one of the rich men. Octave dismisses that, but when he sees his friend André, who really does love Christine, he hands his own coat to André and tells him to go take Christine away.

Octave and La Chesnaye concede that André has won Christine. As André goes running outside, however, Schumacher shoots him dead.

Octave slips away, saying good-bye to Christine via Lisette.

Christine puts on a brave face and says good night to everyone who’s come outside, and La Chesnaye announces that his gamekeeper thought he saw a poacher and accidentally killed André Jurieu. He mourns Jurieu, giving a speech that St.-Aubin and another guest can see is a lie, but that they deem “classy.”

Comments

  1. Wonderful piece Charles. I should have written this earlier.

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