According to many, 1939 was the greatest year in film history. With two Technicolor epics (Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, two defining John Ford classics (Young Abraham Lincoln and Stagecoach, which gave John Wayne his breakout role) and a number of less-remembered but well-regarded movies, it certainly stacks up better than just about any single year short of your pick of the mid-'70s. But the truly defining film of the year came not from Hollywood but from France, on the eve of plunging into war with Germany. The Rules of the Game, made a full three years before Citizen Kane, perfected a number of innovations that Welles would lovingly adopt (and outright steal) for his own masterpiece.
Set in a lavish, rural chateau in which a number of French aristocrats gather for a weekend getaway, The Rules of the Game points perilously to the downfall of French society that was mere months away. Naturally, Renoir could not have anticipated how swiftly the Nazis would come for his country, so he seeks to dismantle the system himself, through some of the most biting satire ever put to film.
The influence of Renoir on director Robert Altman's style is visible from the start: Renoir works with long takes that zoom in and out of conversations winding through separate groups and picking up the overlapping dialogue of each. This style prevents any one character from taking precedence, though a small group do stand out against the rest. André, a pilot, just flew over the Atlantic, and is devastated when his lover does not meet him at the airfield. His friend Octave (played by Renoir himself) takes him to a weekend retreat at the house of Robert de la Chesnaye. Robert's gamekeeper is named Schumacher, whose wife serves as a maid in the chateau.
In the center of all this is Christine, André's former lover and now wife to Robert. Everyone lusts after her like some sort of French art-house version of There's Something About Mary: André still loves her, Octave secretly has feelings for her, Robert perhaps doesn't but certainly views her as his. Even Schumacher's wife, Lisette, is fiercely loyal and loving to Christine; coupled with her disinterest in her husband, one wonders just how deeply she loves her friend.
Through the relaxing activities of these characters Renoir exposes the clueless decadence of the aristocracy. In one memorable scene, the twenty or so guest head out into the fields and promptly shoot every little creature that wanders into their field of view. Animal lovers beware, this is pretty tough stuff. Renoir clearly wants us to see that these aloof fools not only have lost their innocence but actively destroy the purity of nature wherever they go.
The titular game refers to the rampant seduction going on in the retreat. The 'rules' allow the men to take mistresses provided they keep it quiet and treat their wives with respect. Naturally, the women are game pieces, not players themselves. By the end of the thing you get the feeling everyone has screwed everyone else except their own spouses.
The stories of the various characters play out under Renoir's masterful direction, which uses deep focus lenses to show characters in the foreground and the background advancing their plots. Long takes pull every nuance from an actor's face and body language, and each person and object is meticulously placed for maximum aesthetic effect. His style of ambling through various conversations gives the narrative and ebb and flow that can lead you in one direction until it floors you with a change and even move the story along in moments that might seem tangential on a surface level. It's almost too subtle for satire.
But there's a savage humor throughout; Renoir does not so much go for gags and ruthlessly and relentlessly tear the veil down on upper class life; I don't think a director would so clearly loathe his characters until Neil LaBute made In the Company of Men nearly 60 years later. The final segments ram home the complete corruption and delusion of the aristocracy; not even a terrible tragedy can ruin the party. The shocking violence of its humor reminds me of the Coen brothers, as the climactic death of Rules reminds me more than a little of the sudden (and darkly hilarious) deaths that make up so much of their work.
Renoir's flawless direction, combined with his rambling narrative and his unusually deep (for a satire) characterizations make The Rules of the Game stand head and shoulders above just about every other film I've ever seen. Renoir's deep focus photography gives the picture a classical detachment that clashes vividly with the intimate movement of the camera, a dichotomy that makes the movie as engaging as it was the day it came out even as you want to sit back and admire the overall impact of it. The only cinematic satire I can think of that even approaches the vicious, raucous level of this stone-cold classic is Dr. Strangelove, but not even the great Kubrick shot his film as well as Renoir did his. If Citizen Kane is to be acknowledged as the pinnacle of cinema, then this equally influential masterpiece must never be far behind.