The most famous line in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, spoken by Renoir himself in the part of the roly-poly playboy wastrel Octave, is ”Everyone has their reasons.” That line is, of course, the living expression of Renoir’s humanism, his love and understanding of everyone on screen — aristocrats, servants, lovers, fools. But as I watched The Rules of the Game again, in a lustrous new print that will be playing around the country over the next several months, another line, this one also spoken by Octave, struck me with greater force: ”Today, everyone lies,” he says. ”So why shouldn’t simple people like us lie as well?” The prescience of that line — the connection it makes between what the powerful do and what ”we” do — has a haunting application to the world of today.
It also expresses the burbling vibrance of The Rules of the Game, a hunting-party movie in which everyone we see is deluding somebody else or, more possibly, themselves. They all have their reasons, but that doesn’t mean they’re innocent. And it’s that mood of moral wind-shifting, of lightly blowing duplicity, that gives such force to Renoir’s staging, which set the tone for Altman and everyone else — the action that spills in three directions at once, around the mansion and across the grounds, upstairs and downstairs. The Rules of the Game is a comedy, a tragedy, a portrait of class manners, a love story of touching caprice (who will Nora Grégor’s Christine fall for? Whoever woos her at the right moment), and far and away the cinema’s greatest midsummer night’s dream.