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Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960

Saturday, November 17, 2012
6:30 p.m. The Rules of the Game
Jean Renoir (France, 1939)

(La règle du jeu). In Renoir’s masterpiece of ruthless grace, made between the Munich accords and the outbreak of war, history plays as both tragedy and farce. This self-declared “dramatic fantasy” à la de Musset and Beaumarchais etches, in the director’s words, “a rich, complex society . . . dancing on a volcano.” It uses the construct of a country-house gathering, with its shooting party and masquerade, its shifting romantic allegiances and upstairs-downstairs micro-melodramas, to frame a portrait of respectable civilization that is both seductive and monstrous. It is Renoir’s special gift to combine entomological precision with genuine compassion for each of his many characters, including the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), collector of automatons; his wistful wife Christine (Nora Grégor), who complains “telling lies is such a heavy load to bear”; and their bearish friend Octave (Renoir), whose remark sums up the film’s philosophy in all its damning ambiguity: “Everyone has their reasons.”

—Juliet Clark

• Written by Renoir, Karl Koch. Photographed by Jean Bachelet. With Marcel Dalio, Nora Grégor, Renoir, Gaston Modot. (106 mins, In French with English subtitles, B&W, 35mm, From Janus Films/Criterion Collection)