Danse Macabre, part I: The Rules of the Game as a Comedy of Errors


Here,  you have one of the two most important scenes in The Rules of the Game, the famous Danse macabre as it is performed one night at the La Colinière estate owned by pensive yet prideful Robert, Marquis de la Chesnaye.

The scene begins, right at the outset, with a player-piano hammering out a dissonant staccato before it breaks into its arpeggiated accompaniment.  Around it, the guests are all staring with awestruck faces, enamored by its miraculous mechanics.  The song is immediately recognizable.  It is Danse macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, one of his most famous pieces (along with his later epic, The Carnival of Animals).  The camera moves upward and to the left, until it rests on a dark stage.  As is always the case with this Saint-Saëns masterpiece, out of the darkness of the stage appear dancing skeletons, stepping in strange time to their Dance of Death.

As the show progresses, the camera gorgeously moves through the darkness at the watching audience.  The characters at La Colinière have all picked their respective sexual targets, and the amorous interplay of seduction and seclusion plays out in the beautifully ironic out-in-the-open.  Here, director Jean Renoir’s mix of comedy, love, drama, and darkness combines into a fascinating construct; perhaps at no time in the film does its multiplicity of theme and texture come together quite so eloquently.

The Dance of Death, or danse macabre, is an artistic genre born in medieval France. Also called the Totentanz in German, representations of the danse macabre are found in several great paintings, often featuring people of various social classes surrounding some personification of death (usually a hooded and tall figure).  One particularly poignant medieval creation is the Totentanz mural that was found in Lübeck after the Allied bombings of World War II.  Here, you see multiple manifestations of Death in the forms of cloak-dragging skeletons, each dancing skeleton holding hands with one of Death’s newest victims.  What you get is a long promenade of unwilling house guests, in some sort of Virginia Reel down to Hell.

A mural depicting a chain of alternating living and dead dancers

One brief look at the picture (if you can see it) highlights the important and predominant theme of all artistic representations of the danse macabre.  You see men and women, rich and poor.  Most importantly, you see representatives from many different walks of life: the clergy, minstrels, ladies and lords, peasants, even the papacy.  None are exempted from Death’s dance.  The significance here is not religious; the message is not one of salvation or damnation.  The ultimate point of these works of art is, truly, socio-political.  Death isn’t just some cliched endgame in these works, it is not some existential talking point.  The point is a little more pragmatic, focused far more on social rites than on spiritual ones: “who are we fooling?”  We can dress it—or ourselves—up as much as we want, we’re all just dancing our way to expiration anyway.  No amount of money or poverty will transcend us.  It is not a commentary on death, or even life, actually.  It is a commentary on a very specific part of life: the illusion that is class.  Or, maybe illusion is not the right word.  It’s not an illusion, because it is very real.  But, it is pointless.

This is why the danse macabre in The Rules of the Game works, in my opinion, so well.  It works even better than a more famous danse macabre, one that would look a lot more like the Lübecker Totentanz detailed above.

Bergman’s danse macabre in The Seventh Seal, made 18 years later, was of the philosophical variety, the type that deals in death transcendence and existential plight.  Renoir’s was both simpler and more complex: simple, because it did not dabble in the eternal; complex, because it has so many more points to prove.  Class distinction is at the heart of his film, and the pointless and consuming obsession with it is like a sword hanging from a string above your head.

Really, Renoir’s danse macabre is not just this single scene.  Really, it is his entire movie.  The dance is exactly what Renoir said it was: a choreographed number, telling the story of a society “dancing on a volcano.”

I already quoted that line twice in my second essay on The Rules of the Game, but perhaps I should quote it again.

“In reality, I had this subject so much inside me, so profoundly within me, that I had written only the entrances and movements, to avoid mistakes about them. The sense of the characters and the action and, above all, the symbolic side of the film was something I had thought about for a long time. I had desired to do something like this for a long time, to show a rich, complex society where—to use a historic phrase—we are dancing on a volcano.”

Renoir’s description of the film as a precipitous caper on a precipitous ledge gives life to every piece of the film’s setting: from the actions and movements of its characters to the words they say to how they choose to say them.  Behind it all there is a sort of flowery-ness, a bombastic and melodramatic flare that is too frequently chalked-up to its age and cultural backdrop.  Just a slight perusal of my discourse on acting should be enough to help the casual movie-goer realize that there is much more to these “old”-style acting techniques than merely being products of their era.  The acting style was supposed to reflect a form of communication…back then, it wasn’t method acting or bust.  When I watch The Rules of the Game, particularly in the context of Renoir’s piece of mini-commentary quoted above, I can tell what language it is speaking in: dance.

No, not literal dancing, though there is a spattering of that here and there throughout the film.  But, the pirouetting lover’s pairs, the intercourse of ideas and words and bodies in deep space (like in a ballroom), and the baroque and classical music (almost always diegetic) that permeates the entire picture all lend to this vision of the film as a dance, both intricate and spontaneous, with all the imperfect grace that comes with trying to lead your partner.

Consider one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie, a scene that simultaneously is a masterclass in deep focus photography and an exhibition of the sort of farcical physical comedy that breathes life into Renoir’s comedy of errors:

The use of space transforms the kitchen and foyer into ballrooms as Schumacher chases Marceau throughout the house in his unbridled rage.  The characters become manifestations of emotion: rage and jealousy, lust and playfulness, mischief and snark.  The camera moves with them from scene to scene, and their dance creates a chain of activity throughout the house.  I love it when Marcel Dalio’s character, the Marquis de la Chesnaye, slides in between Schumacher and Marceau with his arms wide.  There is a comedic value to that one motion that ages very well, at least in my opinion.

That one motion is just one part of a plethora of motions that make up this one number in the plethora of numbers that comprise the Rules of the Game ballet.  The camera is tracing motion more than it chases dialogue, here, and the dance is all the more literal.  But, there are plenty of moments when the camera captures a dance of words as well.  For most of the film, dialogue overlaps, take for example the opening sequence when the crowd bustles around André and he just wants to talk to Octave about Christine.  The technical proficiency of sound mixing is masterful considering pre-WWII technologies, and one of the most oft-cited compliments to the films technical mastery is, indeed, its sound montage.

Personally, I like the second scene of the movie. André has just made his love known to the world (though the identity of his target remains anonymous) over the radio waves, and has made it very clear that he is upset she did not come to see his triumphant landing.  Immediately, the camera cuts to a woman, Christine—the absent lover, the target of André’s affection herself—as she listens to his voice through the radio in an ornate bedroom somewhere in the distance.  Shortly, she is talking with her handmaid, Lisette, in unfortunately cavalier way, about infidelity, which then, in an equally cavalier way, moves into a discussion of evening wear.  These flows in conversation mimic our own in the real world, something that is difficult to script because of a need to stay on point and theme.

This is the art of Renoir.  His films, in the the famous words of Bernardo Bertolucci, are “So close to life [yet] completely cinema.”  His movies are playful, absurd, dramatic, and exhibitionary, deftly managing both the classical unities and the technological requirements of the cinematic medium.  He has been called a great humanist; but I prefer the term Poetic-Realist, because it is through this approach that he was able to make films that were so profoundly human and yet so profoundly stylized.

Indeed, what we get in the dance that is The Rules of the Game is a comedy of errors that is, truly, unmatched in the world of cinema.  It is by and through the comedy of errors archetype that Renoir breathes life into his sociopolitical musings.  The themes of the danse macabre and the comedy of errors come together in The Rules of the Game, and cinema is the better for it.

The comedy of errors is, classically, a theatrical comedic form that generally involves mistaken identity or some other form of misunderstanding that gives rise to rollicking scenes of slapstick, wordplay and literary dissonance.  Among the most famous comedies of errors is, of course, Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, which tells the story of two separate sets of twins, separated at birth, and the majestic mess they leave in their wake when their paths cross in Ephesus.  Shakespeare had other such comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Twelfth Night.  Unlike these latter two, however, A Comedy of Errors is particularly apropos, insomuch as it, like The Rules of the Game plays out primarily in accordance with the Aristotelian “classical unities,” most particularly the “Unity of Time.”  Unity of Time necessitates that a dramatic structure be confined to a short, contiguous period (around one or two days time).  In The Rules of the Game, the action plays out, at least for the bulk of the film, over the course of a short weekend at La Colinière.

Where the comedy of errors has become a mainstay of contemporary culture in the form of the television sitcom (Fawlty Towers and Frasier are the two most commonly-cited adherents to this farcical form), the comedy of errors was actually an integral and highly respected part of European theater for four centuries.  Indeed, it was the work of many French playwrights mentioned in my last essay on The Rules of the Game that worked to touch and inform M. Renoir’s desire for a “happy dream,” a “divertissement” of baroque qualities and French sentimentalities.  Like the works of Alfred de Musset and others, Renoir created a playful and spontaneous world, a place of pure passions, where humanity is embraced by setting aside its cooperative pretexts and allowing the characters to live and breath in their purest forms.  From that arises a world of misunderstanding, conflict, and outright confusion.  It is more than just “who’s who,” it’s a bombastic “what’s what” as each character struggles mightily to adhere to and learn the rules of the game, if there are, actually, any rules at all.

Granted, this is not a pure comedy of errors.  There is but one case of mistaken identity in the film, and, instead of coalescing around a happy ending (as is generally the token of classical comedy, in contradistinction to the more morose endings of the classical tragedy), this case of mistaken identity ends in the film’s greatest tragedy: a murder.  Could the film really have ended in any other way?

I don’t think that it could have.  The significance of the ending, the way it ties together all the loose thematic strings, cannot be understated.  Here, Renoir’s portrait of a doomed French social structure in the face of imminent destruction—both literal and cultural—comes to its most translucent light.  The entertaining dance he had thus far choreographed and directed does, indeed, trip over the edge of the volcano.  The comedy of errors becomes a danse macabre, a delightful and hilarious romp into utter destruction.

It is this beautiful molding of medieval and classical structures that truly distinguishes this film from those that came before and after it.  In America, the screwball comedy had delightfully embraced the notion of mistaken identities and sexual tension that defined the comedy of errors.  Indeed, The Rules of the Game plays out in many ways like one of those old screwballs.  But, it took the concepts to a new and unseen level.  Since The Rules of the Game, we have seen many movies that mimic it, but none have its keen grasp on reality.

There is yet another distinguishing characteristic to Renoir’s masterpiece that allows it to stay so high above the fray full of imitators and disciples.  It’s a difficult concept to really put your finger on, but I read a short article on another film blog just the other day that I think hit the nail right on the head:

“Renoir, perhaps particularly with this film, reminds me a lot of Jacques Tati. Both filmmakers, notably both French, were masters at being tender critics. They were pointed to human foibles and faults, to odd and irrational behavior, but they never belittled nor scathingly chastised. They took what life offered, for better or worse, presented it, and let it go, often with a smile, a sigh, and a ‘C’est la vie.’ Even in his war-related films (La Marseillaise[The Elusive Corporal], and of course [Grand Illusion] are three good ones), Renoir presents many of the characters and their actions with a cultivated and sensitive fashion. The great and telling quote from [The Rules of the Game], crucially uttered by Renoir’s own Octave, says it perfectly: ‘Everybody has their reasons.’ Even a nuisance like Boudu in Boudu Saved from Drowning is shown not totally void of sympathy. Renoir intended [The Rules of the Game] to be, ‘A pleasant movie that would at the same time function as a critique of a society I condemned rotten to the core.’ And certainly this comes across, but yet, as Renoir also noted, ‘The portrait of this society makes us love it … because this society has at least one advantage: It wears no masks.’ The film is in many ways too clever to be nastily abrasive. While there is, to be sure, a clear agenda with this film, it doesn’t approach any sort of viciousness, most of Renoir’s work never does (La chienne, as the translation of the title sort of suggests, can be occasionally and frankly unpleasant, but even it has considerable comedy). But in the end, [The Rules of the Game] is, as Amy Taubin writes, a ‘social satire that is devoid of cynicism and its companion, sentimentality, and that evokes compassion rather than contempt.'”

The comparison with Tati was most helpful.  When you watch the outrageous comedy of Tati’s “Monsieur Hulot” trilogy, you can’t help but notice how much he, the writer/director/actor, loves Monsieur Hulot.  And Hulot, as aloof as he is, hasn’t an ounce of enmity in his body.  Because of this lens through which we view the robotic and equally aloof society Tati portrays, we are able to watch a scornful satire without looking down our noses.  It would be counterproductive to create a film satirizing the proud and boastful if only to make those who consume it equally proud and boastful.  That is the problem with much of today’s impassioned zealotry.  In decrying the sinful, we ride moral high horses down the same macabre road.

That is the perfect art of The Rules of the Game.  In so desiring to tell a lighthearted romantic fantasy, Renoir created a vision of an imperfect world that gleamed despite its imperfections.  As I will explain in a later essay, Renoir made us all guests at La Colinière alongside Christine, Robert, Schumacher, Lisette, André, Octave, and Marceau by how he chose to view their motions and observe their dialogue…how he chose to use his camera to watch the dance unfold.  As a result, we participate in their comedy and outrageousness as much as we omnisciently analyze it. We are given a world of fault imbued with sympathy, rife with sentiment, and replete with good humor, even as we sadly watch them kill each other.  It’s that same sort of vocabulary through which Orson Welles would speak of a man named Charles Foster Kane only two years later: the vocabulary of the sympathetic satire.  And that is why the comedy in The Rules of the Game is so important.  Even as we strain to approve of these bourgeois slimeballs dancing their slimy dance to destruction, we unflinchingly love them.

One thought on “Danse Macabre, part I: The Rules of the Game as a Comedy of Errors

  1. Pingback: My Introduction to a Series of Essays on The Rules of the Game | A Slice of Cake

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