Comedy or satire? In any case, it is a film that any buff has to see because it is there, it's pre-eminent position in the canon, having long shared the top slot close with Kane. Tough going as it was, only in the second view did the contours reveal themselves. Subtitles inevitably take the toll on one's cinematographic appreciation, and on the second foray one is able to better trade script for visual splendour.
1939. Austria and Czechoslovakia have been annexed by Germany and the Nazi juggernaut is set to unroll. France trembles, wishfully denying what is to come. Renoir (son of the renowned impressionistic painter) has tried to capture the life of the upper classes "exactly as I found it" in this beautiful black and white tragi-comedy, apparently unconnected with the grim history of the moment. The film evoked violently negative reactions at it's first release, even to the extent of an attempt to burn down the cinema where it was playing. Obviously there is more to it than mere farce, because the French must have seen themselves mirrored.
A large group of upper class French society gathers in a mansion in the countryside for a weekend along with their retinue of servants. Andre Jurieux the aviator is a current national hero who has just completed a trans-atlantic flight in a record time of 23 (!) hours. He is infatuated with the Austrian Christine, wife of Jewish aristocrat Robert Cheyniest (who knows this), and who in turn is having an affair with Genevieve, which he wants to end. Parallel affairs are taking place in the serving class--gamekeeper Schumacher struggles vainly to keep a leash on his beautiful and exuberant wife Lisette, maid of Christine, who is the object of affection of nearly everybody, master or servant. Renoir himself plays the voluble and good natured Octave, the middle aged bachelor, who is a thread that binds the labyrinth of plots and sub-plots. And then things take a turn for the melancholy. Renoir compares the events to "people dancing on top of a volcano".
The hunting sequence is famous. Rabbits and fowl scamper in fear as the party of "beaters" drives them forward through the woodland into the open where they are skittled in merciless merriment. One is free to read any symbolism into the sequence, in the light of ongoing and impending military events, but this certainly one of the most memorable of film sequences, in the background of the French countryside in iridescent black and white.
The party which forms the final third of the film is another dazzling feat of cinema/drama/opera/pantomime. The men and women chase each other around the halls and corridors, often exploding to fist fights, with some gun-shots thrown in. The deep focus photography captures this intricate and rapid climaxing of the story with the precision of an intricate clockwork.
The title of the film is the clear expression of the intent. Manners are all. Everything is permissible, anything can be condoned, provided you "fit". It is the aviator and the game-keeper who are the misfits in their slobberish sentimentality, and both pay a heavy price. Sincerity is not in, savviness is. Society is savage, with it's wars and animal hunts, below a thin layer of culture and learning. Appearances are all important. Be anything except a fool. The game is man's existence as a social animal, and the rules are the implacable forms and veneers which must be maintained, even as we rampage. It is not about France in 1939, it's about us, sadly.
To quote Renoir: It is a war film, and yet there is no reference to the war. Beneath its seemingly innocuous appearance the story attacks the very structure of our society. Yet all I thought about at the beginning was nothing avant-garde but a good little orthodox film. People go to the cinema in the hope of forgetting their everyday problems, and it was precisely their own worries that I plunged them into. The imminence of war made them even more thin-skinned. I depicted pleasant, sympathetic characters, but showed them in a society in process of disintegration, so that they were defeated at the outset, like Stahremberg and his peasants. The audience
recognized this. The truth is they recognized themselves. People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses.Review Roger Ebert Andrew O'Hehir Jean Renoir.