The Rules of the Game is an amusing tragedy of manners. Never rude or strained, the picture flays the social excesses of the French aristocracy, exposing lives of vapid insincerity and vicious lack of purpose. Director and co-scenarist Jean Renoir is too subtle to stage a Gallicorgy after the style exemplified by Quo Vadis?. He prefers to draw out indignation, letting the characters condemn themselves by treating infidelity, indelicacy and even brutality as daily steps toward a Good Life whose only end is to escape boredom. Not that decadence is portrayed as innately vile. Rather, its syrupy charm cloys, smothering its cultists' sensibilities until stock motions, reactions and conversations replace emotions.
Into a setting of grimly pursued gaiety--a country houseparty given by a charmingly useless marquis and attended by his wife, mistress and assorted dignitaries--comes an earnest young hero. Infatuated with the wife, he believes that she returns his love, but her advances (or halting retreats) are little more than flirtation permits with all her male friends. He just doesn't know the rules.
With him comes another simple soul, too direct to understand or practice the art of devious speaking. These two--the latter played by Renoir--force the aristocratic loafers to examine themselves and their lives for the first time.
The extravagance that accompanies thoughtless sinning and specious repentance provides the film's humor while a pack of servants contribute the low comedy necessary for most pieces of specific sophistication. As high seduction reigns in the drawing room, the boot-black corners the chambermaid in the kitchen in mocking counter point.
Eventually, the two social threads come together, producing the final tragic shooting. Although the film lacks many of the directional techniques so common today--contrived transitions between scenes, double-jointed camera angles and low pressure acting--Renoir has forced a rather pointless story into the mold of his own talent and brought off a startling satire. Working with confusion and generally weak characterization he makes both elements seem well calculated and essential elements of the picture.
While its charm is impaired by a bitter denunciation of the sort of social "game" that must be played by rules, The Rules of the Game is still a comedy. Chase scenes and insinuating servants join other well-aged comic props, twisted by the Renoir touch into a clever and enjoyable satire.