A series of love-triangles surrounding a set of the French aristocracy on the eve of the Second World War. The Marquis and Marquise de la Cheyniest hold a shooting party at their country house where passions break out among the shooting carnage and the night revels. Three men are in love with the Marquise and two women are in love with the Marquis; who will win whom and who will play by the rules?
It’s 1939, and famous pilot André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) touches down in Paris, greeted by a mob of onlookers as a celebrity and splashed on radio news. There to meet him is his friend Octave (Jean Renoir), a clever, wise-cracking dilettante with the soul of a musician. André is disappointed not to see the woman to whom he dedicated his flight there to meet him and says so on radio. In her palatial Parisian house, Madame la Marquise de la Cheyniest, Christine (Nora Grégor), is that woman, and she is listening. She is dressing for an evening out with the help of her lady’s maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost). Lisette is a soubrette, discussing with her mistress the positives and negatives of having extra-marital affairs. Lisette is married to the Marquis’ gamekeeper but lives apart from him, as he lives on their country estate in Colinière—and she prefers it stays that way.
Downstairs, Christine meets her husband Robert (Marcel Dalio), a feckless aristocrat with an obsession with all things clockwork. He has heard Jurieux’s broadcast as well and has his suspicions. As his wife leaves, however, he phones up his mistress Geneviève (Mila Parély) to arrange a meeting for the next morning. At Geneviève’s apartment, Robert is considering breaking off their affair despite being together for years. Geneviéve questions whether this will be enough for Christine who, coming from an Austrian background, is not au fait with Parisian social mores.
Meanwhile, the crazed Jurieux has driven himself and Octave into a ditch. Octave tries to reason with his friend, saying that he, too, in his way loves Christine, having grown up with her and being indebted to her musician father. In the end, however, Octave agrees to arrange a meeting between Jurieux and Christine. When he arrives at the home of the Marquis and the Marquise, however, he persuades Christine to invite Jurieux to Colinière—and at the same time suggests to Robert that he should set up Geneviève with Jurieux. Robert has also received a letter from Lisette’s husband, Schumacher (Gaston Modot) asking her to give up service with Christine and return with him to Alsace.
When the Marquis and Marquise arrive at Colinière, Robert takes a survey of the grounds with Schumacher; Schumacher catches his nemesis Marceau the poacher (Julien Carette) but perversely Robert offers him a job as a domestic servant, which Marceau accepts. The rest of the guests begin arriving, and a great stir is made when Jurieux arrives. Christine quickly tries to dispel tension, but Jurieux is clearly not to be fobbed off. In the servants’ quarters, discussion is made over whether Jewish aristocrats make good masters and mistresses. Lisette is shrugging off her husband’s attentions and instead has her eye on Marceau, who has gotten delusions of grandeur, shining the guests’ shoes.
The next day is the shooting party. Christine’s niece Jackie pines unsuccessfully after Jurieux; Robert decides once and for all to end his affair with Geneviève. Christine accidentally spies on Robert and Geneviève and draws her own conclusions. Later that evening, as Geneviève is packing, Christine stops her and tells her that she has known of their affair all along (which is not the case). She isn’t angry, and the two make a reconciliation of a sort. The evening features an extended series of theatricals put on by the guests. The entire house is overrun by people in costume acting in uninhibited ways. Through the adjoined rooms, a drunken Geneviève pursues Robert and Jurieux; Christine and another aristocrat, Monsieur de St-Aubin, disappear for a secretive tête-à-tête; Schumacher pursues and then catches his wife and Marceau. Robert wishes he could marry more than one wife, and Octave just wishes someone would get him out of his bear costume. Eventually, St-Aubin and Jurieux come to fisticuffs, and Jurieux asks Christine to run away with him.
The Rules of the Game is a comedy of manners, but a subtle and cynical one whose critique of French society is as cutting as it is amusing. It flows remarkably well, never once betraying a sense of staginess—though it could have been made for the stage, it remains firmly rooted in cinema, with beautifully-lit shots and superbly vital camera work. This is particularly the case during the theatrical evening, which is almost like a stage musical with various characters “soloing” and “dueting” in different sections of the house, walking in and out of the camera’s purview in a flurrying tide of motion. Unlikely characters take the fore for sympathy: Octave, who makes the ultimate sacrifice, and Schumacher, who loses his wife and his job in a farcical shooting match. It goes without saying that Jean Renoir masters playing perhaps the most complex character as well as directing the stunning black and white film.
The Rules of the Game was a commercial flop when first released and was considered unpatriotic. It seems to anticipate World War II in its critique in uncanny ways, from the wholesale slaughter of rabbits and birds during the shooting day in graphic detail, to the seemingly innocent discussion in the servants’ dining hall. Perhaps the most memorable sequence of the whole film is during the theatricals, when costumed ghosts and skeletons move among the guests.
“Corneille,” says the Marquis to his butler, “put a stop to this game.” “Which game, Monsieur le Marquis?”