Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece of French society is a harsh stab in the gut of everything that is immediate pre-Second World War. Initially banned on release for being demoralising in a world at war, its plot rips apart the moral fibres of society in a country house owned by the Marquis de la Cheyniest. Providing the ideas for directors such as Woody Allen and Robert Altman, and no doubt acting as the inspiration for the successful TV series Upstairs Downstairs, La Regle du Jeu (which translates as The Rules of the Game) is a story about mixed affections as a group of people stay at the country house one weekend.
The film actually opens with pioneering airman Jurieux as he completes a successful long distance flight, much to the praise of the nation, a large group of onlookers and journalists turning up at his landing to congratulate and interview him, including his friend, society mixer and failed musician Octave (played by Renoir). Octave is a guest at the country house, but it's really Christine, the lady of the house, that Jurieux was hoping would be there, as the two of them have all but announced their love for each other, French society and propriety not allowing them to act on their affections. Devastated by her lack of appearance, all else fails to interest him, including the journalists' questions about his flight.
An invitation from the Marquis (Marcel Dalio) to spend the weekend with the rest of his guests surprises Jurieux, but unbeknownst to him, the Marquis is himself in love with another woman, not his wife Christine, whom he has also invited to the weekend. Already getting complicated before the main part of the film has started, it then becomes a melee of characters and affections, the love affairs and clandestine secrets above ground matched only by the open and clear mix of affections amongst the staff of the house, not least the battle between the head groundsman and the new beater of the hunt for the affections of the maid, currently the groundsman's wife. The stark contrast between keeping things a societal secret for the rich and served, and letting things out in the open with nothing to hide from the poor and serving, is a wonder to behold, the two flowing in and out of sequence with one another throughout the film as we see Renoir slowly turning the screw on his characters as the film goes on.
There is animosity in its most dangerous form (plotting) during a hunt, where characters begin to suspect the twisting nature of various affections, and the film meanders with tense buildup, clever conversation and excellent pace towards a concluding half an hour which is simultaneously hilarious and tragic, showing that love and lust are actually not all that far apart when we are taken by one or the other. Renoir's magic is best shown during the scenes above ground in the house, as the rooms in the labyrinthine house are made clear mainly by the characters in them and not necessarily the rooms themselves.
It is confusion such as this which separates the upstairs from the downstairs, with the Marquis' guests all wearing such similar attire that with the faster paced room hopping making you really concentrate to understand who is who, whereas the downstairs elements are very clear in which character is which, with the running around providing an almost slapstick comedy that you can enjoy more because of the character definition. The enjoyment upstairs is quite clearly in the confusion itself - a genius move on
The danger for the motley crew of characters comes with the combination of the two societies, and this leads to a dramatic conclusion that you don't see coming until it's upon you, a crescendo and combination of events that culminates in tension release before the credits roll. It's an incredibly clever film, with people playing games against each other and trying to gain the upper hand all the time, success similarly met with failure for all involved characters, Renoir keeping those not involved comfortably in the dark so as to not over complicate an already intrinsic collection of people. The conclusion could be read as Renoir's statement firstly of a pre-war society that has gone mad, but also of how the two classes should not mix. The upper classes stick to their own, despite their faults and appearances, and the lower classes should do the same. The director shows us that we are all no different, but because of how society, money and class has developed us, it is often dangerous to mix the classes. nowadays of course, things are somewhat different, the boundaries are less defined even if the extremes are potentially more so.
Renoir's genius is in filing everything in order so that it appears in the film in a smooth flowing pace. The clarity on the surface belies a complex tale with complex characters, and what we see is only a fraction of what is going on, a lot of suggestion and explanation prevalent that would otherwise be included and explained. Here, though, that lack of explanation shows the depth of what is going on and that we are treated to the most important of details and spared the unimportant. Renoir's classic is a masterpiece, and something well worth watching.