Exactly what Jean Renoir had in mind when he wrote, performed in, and directed The Rules of the Game, Saturday's French import at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse, is anybody's guess. This is the same M. Renoir, if you please, who gave us those notable imports, Grand Illusion and The Human Beast, not to mention The Southerner, from Hollywood. The new arrival, however, is really one for the buzzards.
Here we have a baffling mixture of stale sophistication, coy symbolism, and galloping slapstick that almost defies analysis. The distributors claim that the picture, made shortly before the war, was banned by the Occupation on grounds of immorality. Rest assured it wasn't immortality. And there's nothing particularly sizzling in this account of some addle-headed lounge lizards tangling up their amours on a weekend house party in the country.
One minute they're making sleek Noël Coward talk about art and free love, the next they're behaving like a Li'l Abner family reunion, chasing each other from pantry to boudoir to the din of wrecked furniture, yelling, and random gunfire. One carefully picturesque sequence, a rabbit hunt, may or may not be fraught with Renoir meaning, but the grand finale, in which everybody down to the cook joins in a hysterical conquest race, would shame the Keystone Kops.
In the juicy role of a family friend, M. Renoir acts as though it were his last day on earth. The other principals, Dalio, Nora Gregor, and Mila Parély, are right behind him. The picture ends abruptly with an unaccountable murder, whereupon one of the philanderers murmurs that the victim didn't learn the rules of the game. If the game is supposed to be life, love, or hide-and-seek, which makes more sense, it's M. Renoir's own secret. At any rate, the master has dealt his admirers a pointless, thudding punch below the belt.
Twenty-two years after The Rules of the Game was made, and eleven years after a mutilated print was exhibited here, the full version of Jean Renoir's study of the manners and mores of prewar France opened yesterday at the Eighth Street Playhouse and completely justifies its European reputation.