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The Rules of the Game (1939) was greeted by catcalls and boos during its initial showings. Now international film critics have voted it second only to Citizen Kane (1941) as one of the greatest films of all time.
A small plane lands at Orly Airport in Paris. Its pilot, Andre Jurieu (Roland Toutain), has just recreated Charles Lindbergh's solo flight and an ecstatic crowd rushes towards him. Andre, however, tells a radio reporter that he is depressed because he made the flight for a woman and she is not even there. The woman, Christine (Nora Gregor), is not only an aristocrat but also married. The potential scandal hardly fazes her husband, the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), in part because he is keeping a mistress on the side and everyone but his wife knows. Husband, wife, aviator and mistress are all invited to the Marquis' country estate for a hunting weekend. As if this were not enough romantic intrigue, the Marquis forces his gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) to hire a poacher (Julien Carette) who lives up to his profession by attempting to poach the gamekeeper's flirtatious wife. In the middle is Octave, a friend of both the pilot and Christine, who believes he is the master of these intersecting triangles but soon finds himself ensnared as well. The film's director, Jean Renoir, appropriately enough, plays the role himself. Other members of the French aristocracy, also invited for the weekend, look on, caring nothing about the immorality of infidelity as long as everyone follows the rules of the game.
Renoir later said that he intended "nothing avant-garde but a good little orthodox film." While listening to French baroque music, he reflected on the romantic farces of the 18th century, usually involving aristocrats and servants. Why not write a similar story, but set it among the modern day French aristocracy? Unfortunately, the timing was against him. When the film opened in Paris July 7, 1939, war with Germany was only two months away and French audiences were in no mood to see their ruling classes shown as frivolous, wasteful adulterers. Renoir said, "At every session I attended I could feel the unanimous disapproval of the audience. I tried to save the film by shortening it, and to start with I cut the scenes in which I myself played too large a part, as though I were ashamed, after this rebuff, of showing myself on the screen. But it was useless." The film closed in three weeks and was banned as "demoralizing." After the Nazis invaded, Renoir went to the United States to direct and his Marquis, Marcel Dalio, accepted Hollywood character parts, most famously as the croupier at Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca (1942). As the seemingly final epitaph for The Rules of the Game, U.S. and British planes bombed the warehouse where the negative was stored, destroying it.
After World War II, prints of The Rules of the Game played occasionally in France, cut by 20 minutes from its premiere length. However, in 1956, two film lab technicians, Jean Gaborit and Jacques Marechal, found 224 boxes recovered from the bombing. They contained bits and pieces of elements used to assemble the original film. With the help of Renoir, the two technicians painstakingly restored the film to slightly shorter than its original 113 minutes. Renoir said, "There is only one scene missing in this reconstruction, a scene that isn't very important. It's a scene with me and Toutain that deals with the maids' sexual interest."
The newly restored film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1959 and was hailed as a rediscovered masterpiece. In Sight and Sound's International Critic's Poll of 1962, The Rules of the Game was voted the third best film of all time after Citizen Kane (1941) and Lvventura (1960). By the 1972 poll, it rose to second best and has remained there in each tally of this poll since.
Producer: Claude Renoir
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Camille Francois, Carl Koch, Jean Renoir, Andre Zwoboda
Production Design: Max Douy, Eugene Lourie
Cinematography: Jean Bachelet
Costume Design: Coco Chanel
Film Editing: Marguerite Renoir
Original Music: Roger Desormieres
Principal Cast: Nora Gregor (Christine de La Chesnaye), Jean Renoir (Octave), Marcel Dalio (Robert de La Chesnaye), Paulette Dubost (Lisette), Roland Toutain (Andre Jurieux), Pierre Magnier (Le General), Gaston Modot (Schumacher), Julien Carette (Marceau), Mila Parely (Genevieve de Marras).
by Brian Cady