Christine's husband, Marquis Robert (Marcel Dalio), has also been listening in, while dressing for dinner. Aware of his wife's relationship with Andre, he's relieved to see that she seems unconcerned about the aviator, though he can't help dropping a comment about whether she trusts him! Given an affirmation of this, Robert dashes off in a paroxysm of marital good-will to phone his mistress Genevieve de Marras (Mila Parély), with the aim of breaking-off their affair. Meanwhile, Andre grieves over Christine, unaware of (or unwilling to accept) the conventions of society which dictate her behaviour. Andre's suicidal urges are too disturbing for Octave though, so he suggests that he might be able to bring everyone together, if Andre is willing. Octave is a close friend of Christine, having studied with her father (a famous composer), giving him a prime position. Using all of his substantial charm, both Christine and Robert are convinced that inviting Andre to their country chateau is a good idea.
The weekend in the country centres on a shooting party, so many and varied are the guests invited by the Cheyniest's. Along with the local aristocracy come Genevieve, a doddering General (Pierre Magnier) and, of course, Andre. The air fills with gossip, the latest infidelities and the rumours upon which such society depends. The most dominant of these concern the unexpected presence of Andre, which impels Christine to publicly explain that they are merely friends (putting Robert at ease and causing many to remark on how well she handled the situation). With the social waters smoothed, the guests are free to gorge themselves in preparation for the coming hunt while downstairs the parallel world of the staff encounters its own marital strife. The problem concerns Lisette and her husband Schumacher (Gaston Modot), who rather conveniently is the gamekeeper. Thus Lisette never has to actually see him when she's in Paris, much to his consternation and with ultimately shattering consequences.
La Règle du jeu leads its characters on a merry dance, demonstrating the ridiculousness of their actions even as it draws out their essential humanity. Within the whirl of games which define the lives of the bourgeoisie, two distinct levels are apparent - the masters and their servants. While there are many links between them, with Octave able to flirt openly with Lisette, woe betide anyone stuck inbetween. Andre is such a person and, to a lesser extent, so is Christine. They are both outsiders (Andre from a lower class, Christine from Austria), a handicap when it comes to playing by the rules of their contemporaries. However, just when Andre and Christine's struggle with these constraints is at its most intense, the utterly hypocritical basis for these codes of honour is stripped bare by Renoir.
Synchronous with the absurdities of the aristocrats (the two love triangles which centre on Christine), the servants have their own petty jealousies and affairs of the heart to deal with. Events which take place in one sphere (the cuckolding of Robert) echo in the other (Lisette's infidelity), with the mirror-image breaking only when it comes to dealing punishment. Robert is happy to settle the matter with fisticuffs (amazed that this sort of thing really happens) while Schumacher resorts to the gun, giving rise to an extended and revealing chase sequence throughout the stately home. The reactions of the guests to this danger varies from considering it part of the home-spun show to watching in bemusement as master and servant alike career around.
These scenes are perfect examples of the technical prowess displayed all around in La Règle du jeu, in everything from the perfect rhythm of the editing to the beautiful deep-focus photography. This approach allows everyone in a crowd to remain distinct, with characters in the background often doing something contrary to that occurring before them, placing a new spin on the situation. Equally the lighting and framing are excellent, while Renoir's spatial awareness allows the camera to do everything from remaining resolutely still (trapping characters within the frame, forcing them together) to skimming up and around, moving smoothly with the flow of the narrative. This natural motion of viewpoint dovetails snugly with the improvised feel of the action, such that lines seem spontaneous even as they are exactly the opposite.
In concert with the coherent direction and strong script, the entire cast give flawless and appropriate performances. Renoir is superlative as the pivotal Octave, friend to everyone, solid and dependable, yet possessing desires and dreams of his own. Fortunately Renoir doesn't hog the best lines (though he can't resist a number of personal references), allowing Dalio to expand on the Marquis' gentleness, his need to avoid causing pain mixed in with the slipperiness of an habitual liar and his childish glee when faced with a mechanical toy. As his troubled wife, Gregor is realistically hesitant and confused (Renoir plays to her weaknesses), easily believable as the focus of so much love. Compared to her selfish maid, vibrantly played by Dubost, Christine is thoroughly innocent, the victim of a mistaken belief that she understood the game.
Altogether, La Règle du jeu is an outstanding and non-judgmental satire, a commentary on human behaviour and charitable to its protagonists. Despite handling a number of thematic strands, Renoir's clarity of approach is such that these remain distinct (at least, until Renoir wishes to combine and contrast them). For example, the theme of mistaken identity, where one person substitutes for another (such as at the masquerade ball), is introduced at the airport and continues throughout. Together with the direct interpretation, every member of this upper-middle class social group is required (as a matter of course) to hide their true feelings, their identity. It is this complexity, presented in simple terms, which makes La Règle du jeu a sublime masterpiece. Renoir subtly builds his case against the aristocracy, collapsing his house of cards only at the very end -- when the underlying deceptiveness is revealed, for all to see.