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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Rules of the Game (1939)



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How can I even begin to review this movie? Surely it is impossible to do it justice. This is the sort of film you can see a dozen times and still notice new things with each viewing. I'm not even talking about little details or finishing touches that escaped you before but whole themes. There is just so much going on in this movie that the tenth viewing can be as fresh and rewarding as the first.

The best analogy to a modern film I can come up with is Robert Altman's Gosford Park, in which a large cast of characters from different tiers of a rigid class structure, converge on a manor (here, a French chateau) and go about their lives and little intrigues in ways that intersect in complicated and unexpected ways. One of the pleasures of The Rules of the Game, as in many of Altman's pictures, is how the large cast of characters have lives that extend beyond the camera's view. We feel like we're only another guest in the chateau, and although we may have a privileged view of the key events, we are aware that the characters are living their lives even when we're not looking at them. Much has been written about the deep focus cinematography of the film, which allows separate stories to unfold simultaneously in the foreground and background of the frame.

This is the film's style, but much more can be said about its voice. This is a film that regards the course of human life with a eye somewhere between amusement and cynicism. So controversial and subversive was it at the time of its release that the French tried to bury the film long before the Nazis occupied France and sought to destroy it themselves. The film was simply too effective at puncturing the standards of decency men establish for their public images. It wasn't just the aristocracy that the film eviscerates, either, but anyone with noble pretensions. To put it another way, The Rules of the Game breaks the primary rule of the game: don't get caught breaking the rules.

Savage as it is, though, the film is gentle with its method. You will not get beat over the head with its imprecations, as you might expect with a social satire. Its subtlety makes the film that much more intriguing: does it restrain itself from overtly heavy blows because it has compassion for its characters, or because the quiet blows sting so much more? My guess is both, somehow.