Saying just the right thing at just the right time can be dangerous. This is likely why Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu), was met with disgust at the time of its release despite on the surface being a relatively harmless drawing room comedy. But there are ways in which the film is definitely more like a nightmare about a comedy than a straightforward comedy, despite Renoir's expressed intention only to make the latter. The delirium of comedy becomes a foundation layer for a truly disturbing portrait of Europe at the beginning of World War II.
The film begins with a pilot, Andre (Roland Toutain), landing his plane in France after an historic flight that one of the reporters present compares to Charles Lindbergh. All Andre seems concerned with, though, is that the woman he loves, Christine (Nora Gregor), isn't there to meet him. Continually the film presents its ensemble of aristocratic characters ignoring or barely noticing vitally important, even dangerous things, focusing instead on their own romances--affairs which seem quite capricious despite the passion characters express for them.
Most of the film is set at the enormous country house belonging to Robert (Marcel Dalio), Christine's husband. It seems like a long, unbroken party sequence. Much of the dialogue was apparently improvised and characters chat endlessly about their relationships and consider the pros and cons of starting an affair with this person or breaking off an affair with that person. Octave, a character played by Renoir himself, has some slightly more profound things to say, including one really impressive, ominous line; "in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons." But this is tossed off as something barely less trivial than everything else that's going on.
Because of the high turnover rate in romance, grand sentiments become commonplace, so maybe that's why extraordinary things don't seem to make much of an impression. One scene that is truly nightmarish in its comic energy has the German gamekeeper, Schumacher (Gaston Madot), running rampant through the party firing a gun, trying to hit the poacher, Marceau (Julien Carette), he'd caught with his wife. Everyone seems frightened and shocked but also delighted and amused in equal measure. The recorded music playing from a machine gets stuck and the discordant sound alters the tone of the slapstick considerably.
Schumacher might be taken as representing Hitler--he has something of the self-importance and resentment for the people around him one associates with Hitler. Marceau might be interpreted as a Jew, especially when he tries to blend into a crowd of partygoers as Schumacher fires at him. This interpretation doesn't quite hold when he and Schumacher are commiserating later when it seems to them Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Schumacher's wife, has transferred her affections to Octave. On the other hand, this speaks to the ultimate shallowness of the anti-Semitism which operated as a convenient outlet for anger and resentment. The terrifying absurdity is in how thin and insubstantial are the philosophies used to justify terrible destruction.
One should also note that Marceau making out with another man's wife is exactly what everyone else is doing. Andre and Robert finally come to blows over Christine; Christine finally realises she's always been in love with one man before finally realising she's always been in love with another. Revelations that one couple is cheating seem to have significance only in how passionate one can reasonably be about it, or charmingly dispassionate. When one woman finally admits to loving the man who'd pursued her, he checks her ardour by reminding her "There are rules, after all." And one does get that impression, that everyone, however chaotic their outward behaviour, is still operating within unseen boundaries. They're so strong that when one man commits murder, everyone instinctively considers it the appropriate response when he's allowed to help clean up some of the wreckage and resume his position in society.