Actor, Direct Thyself: Jean Renoir in The Rules of the Game

Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) is a film that I like much better when I am watching it on a big screen in a classroom than when I watch the DVD at home. It’s a film that benefits from being watched with a lot of other people. Gauging the reactions of your fellow viewers is part of what elevates the experience. After watching Rules again two nights ago – my third time overall – I was struck by just how good a performance Jean Renoir gave as the character Octave. Directors don’t always make good actors, especially when cast in their own projects, but I think there’s quite a lot of depth in Octave, which is one of the most sympathetic roles in the picture. (Spoilers ahead.)

Octave has a lengthy amount of expository dialogue in a scene right after his friend André Jurieux, a famed aviator, deliberately crashes his car while they drive in the countryside. Despite the verbosity, it’s a great scene, one which was not in the original theatrical release of the film since it was deemed extraneous. After the crash Octave explains to Andre why he (Octave) cares for Christine, whom Andre loves madly, displayed in a beautifully framed set of shots.

This shot in particular shows the predicaments that both characters face: André needs desperately to see Christine again and Octave realizes how serious his friend is about this love. Octave reassures André that he will see Christine again.

Octave visits Christine to try to convince her of the seriousness of André’s love for her. It is obvious that he has a tenderness for her that goes back to their time spent together in Austria, where her father, Stiller, conducted an orchestra that Octave played in. Christine ends up inviting both Octave and André to stay with her for a week at her countryside chateau, La Colinière.

It’s in this scene that you see even more of Octave’s adorable, childlike charm. You can see that the affection between these two characters is greater than what Christine feels for any of the other men in her life. In these shots I am reminded of some of the paintings that Renoir’s father, the artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, created of his young son at the turn-of-the-century, especially The Artist’s Son, Jean, Drawing (1901).

When Octave and André arrive at the chateau, La Colinière, it is Octave to whom Christine runs first. When the two men enter the frame, André is dressed in a light-colored coat and Octave is in a dark color, like Christine, so it is to Octave that the viewer’s eye is drawn.

Ah, the bear suit. After performing in a whimsical play put on by the residents of the country house, poor Octave can’t find anyone to get him out of the costume and wanders the estate for a while in search of a helping hand. It’s an endearing outfit, ridiculous as it is.

As I mentioned earlier, Octave (true to his name) is – or at least at some point, was – a musician. Out on the terrace he reenacts for Christine what it was like to work with her father in Salzburg. Critics have questioned who the one main character of the film is, and I think these scenes show a special importance for Octave. He has memories and dreams beyond what the other characters care about, which is primarily their romantic liaisons.

Afterwards, in the greenhouse, Octave tells Christine quite candidly that he considers himself a failure. It’s interesting to compare this discussion and Octave’s musing on being only a friend to the rich, not really one of the elite himself, to the Marquis (Christine’s husband Robert), who is not only wealthy but who also feels the pride of success for having acquired material possessions like mechanical birds and other toys. In this beautifully lit scene, creating a sense of the characters being bathed in moonlight, Christine tells Octave that it is “really him” that she loves.

There is something a little awkward about the kiss, but I would say that that is more because of Octave the character rather than Renoir the actor.

When Octave returns to the house to gather his coat and hat and leave with Christine, he is told by the maid, Lisette, that he will not be able to make Christine happy. It is probable that Lisette is only saying this because she knows she will be out of a job if her mistress runs off with a poor man, rather than out of real emotional conflict (it is implied in the film that Octave and Lisette have had an intimate relationship from time to time). Nevertheless, what Lisette says strikes a chord within Octave. In this brilliantly done shot, Octave looks up from his search for his hat to actually see his reflection in the mirror. In his eyes you can see that he is looking at himself physically and realizing that not only does he have no way to support Christine’s lifestyle, he’s also no typical Romeo. Earlier, in the greenhouse, Octave told Christine that he felt he was too old to become a success at anything, and in the mirror shot it seems as though he’s really seeing all the years and wrinkles that have gathered on his face.

It is therefore no surprise that Octave sends Andre out to the greenhouse in his place, thinking that perhaps it will make both Andre and Christine happy. Christine’s husband, Robert, sees what has happened and he tells Lisette to stop crying over the whole mess. What Robert does not see, however, is that Octave is crying too.

In the end, after Andre has been shot after being mistaken for Octave by Lisette’s husband and boyfriend (the paramour, Marceau, is seen left in the above shot) because they thought that it was Lisette who they had seen Octave kissing in the greenhouse (Christine had been wearing Lisette’s cape and with the hood up), Octave decides to leave the chateau. He cannot play the rules of the wealthy set’s game because he has real feelings. He thought he had a chance at love, not just another flirtation for fun. Octave bids Lisette farewell and tells her to give Christine a kiss for him. It is a bittersweet goodbye for such a wonderful character. I implore you to see The Rules of the Game not only for its social and political critiques but also for the actors, Jean Renoir included.

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