Sincere people are such bores
La Règle du Jeu starts with a simple affair: young adventurer André Jurieux has a crush on Christine de la Cheyniest, whose husband, Robert, thinks it's a charming diversion but wants it to end. From there on out the film snowballs more and more different characters into the proceedings, employing an 'upstairs, downstairs' structure you may recognize from Downton Abbey. Most of it takes place in a mansion on the countryside, where masquerade revelries and ballroom games take up much of the time.
Where Downton merely simulates the tone of the times it portrays (the turn of the century), one of the pleasures of La Règle du Jeu is that it was actually made in 1939. Its various details and concerns are therefore genuine. Whether it's the marvel of crossing the Atlantic in an airplane or the modern advances against diphtheria, quaint touches are everywhere.
Some of those touches are nowadays a little less quaint. In the middle of the film there is a segment where the nobles go hunting. A modern film would employ all sorts of trickery to fake such footage, but in 1939 they went for the real thing. Seeing dozens of pheasants and rabbits shot down feels like a snuff movie today. It's distasteful and an unintentional indictment of the hunting upper class. When the film came out, it apparently caused outrage in France because of its laissez-faire portrayal of extramarital romance and its independently-minded women, but perhaps it should have been due to the callous killing of animals.
Affairs and secrets brim underneath the mock joviality of high society, and also the dutiful ranks of the serving class. Both are joined in a web of infidelity. At times it turns into a farce, complete with people chasing each other with guns, lovers hiding in rooms and mistaken identities. The end turns out bittersweet, however, with a payoff that I will gladly take as payback for the bunnies.
La Règle du Jeu is a prominent feature in the decennial Sight & Sound top ten list of best movies. Whether it’s deserved or not is, as ever, up for discussion, but the qualities of this film are plain to see: it’s well-constructed, its characters react in unexpected and interesting ways, and it has the air of scandal about it. The average film settles for much less.