To French people in 1939, the upcoming war with Germany was inevitable.
The surprise wasn’t the attack in early May, 1940. The surprise was that the war was over by summer.
The Third Republic was dissolved. Most French people lived in the German Empire.
And they lived quite peacefully, for the most part. The French Resistance got a lot of good press over the years, but it was a tiny nuisance – especially when compared to a serious resistance movement like the Tito’s Yugoslav Partisans.
France’s quick defeat and pacification was no surprise to its top filmmaker Jean Renoir. In the vicious satire “The Rules of the Game,” he presents his people as narcissistic and frivolous.
Renoir sets the silly tone in the very first scene. France’s heroic pilot André Jurieux has just landed in Paris, becoming the first aviator to cross the Atlantic in less than 24 hours.
The reporter tosses him a nice softball question. “Are you happy?”
“I’m very unhappy,” André responds. “I’ve never been so disappointed in my life. I made this flight for a woman. She’s not here to welcome me. She didn’t even bother. I tell her this publicly: she’s disloyal!”
Pretty ridiculous. Impressively, Renoir sustains this spirit of immaturity for two hours.
The woman that Jurieux is pining over, by the way, is somebody else’s wife. The “game” in “The Rules of the Game” is perpetual infidelity.
Jurieux is infatuated with a superrich noble woman named Christine. The story mostly takes place at her posh hunting cottage. Her libertine husband Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest has invited everyone to the country to hunt rabbits.
Shamelessly, Marquis Robert chooses to include his own mistress. And he invites André Jurieux, even though it is now a known fact that the aviator loves his wife. Preventable drama and needless violence ensues. For the decadent French nobility, that appears to be the goal.
More troublingly, Renoir observes, this penchant for casual immorality has infected the lower classes. At the hunting cottage, the servants are chasing other servants’ wives as well.
The contrast in cultures on the eve of the invasion is striking. The German regime is evil to the core, but at least the people are working together toward something bigger than themselves. The French people are self-involved clowns, working toward the abolishment of the 7th Commandment. In Renoir’s eyes, the French are as doomed as the poor rabbits.
Even in their passion for infidelity, the French can’t be trusted to follow through. Renoir’s biggest insult to his own people is that none of the cheating couples ever consummate. They just go through the motions of pining for each other and sneaking around because that’s the game they are supposed to play. The Marquis has a lovely wife and a comely mistress, but his only true passion is for elaborate music boxes.
“The Rules of the Game” is a brutally insightful historical document of a once-great people who have been emasculated and infantilized by their decadence. It is like watching a movie made by a Roman in 475.