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The Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game(1939)

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Perhaps it's never a good idea to open a review by proclaiming a film "masterpiece" or "greatest." Too intimidating, too definitive, just too much. But that's pretty hard to avoid with Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939). It frequently ends up on critics' and historians' lists of the best films ever made; for instance coming in near the top in each of the Sight and Sound polls since 1952. Add the fact that the film's premiere created a near-riot, resulting in hasty re-editing, a government ban and a quick sink into potential oblivion. The reputation and the legend create a lot for any film to bear.

Still, first-time viewers might end up scratching their heads. Rules of the Game swings from melodrama to drawing room satire to farce without settling on a Big Theme. There's none of the blatant visual effects of say Citizen Kane or Breathless, none of the epic sweep of The Godfather II or The Birth of a Nation, none of the focused intensity of Tokyo Story or The Big Sleep. Compared to what's usually presented as a Great Film, Rules of the Game might seem like it's in the wrong company.

But now the best possible introduction to this elusive landmark has appeared in the Criterion Collection's double-DVD for Rules of the Game. At the center, of course, is the film itself, looking astonishingly sharp, not because the earlier film or video versions seemed lacking but because nobody realized the movie itself had ever looked like this. This is even more remarkable considering that the negative was destroyed during a WW2 bombing raid and almost makes a reviewer regret ever calling another DVD transfer a "revelation." Details like facial expressions or decor spring out, all the more important in a film crammed with action and deep-focus shots. Even the sound, never the clearest even considering that this was a 30s independent production, has needed clarity.

The story in Rules of the Game is deceptively casual and meandering at times - at least the first time you see it. The film opens with the arrival of a Lindbergh-like aviator who has just completed a solo Atlantic flight. He receives a rapturous greeting when he arrives at the French airfield but instead of basking in the glory he instead announces over the radio his disappointment that the woman he loves wasn't there to meet him. The woman, as it turns out, is married and from here Rules spins outward to the woman's husband, his mistress, the aviator's best friend, the chambermaid the friend is trying to seduce, the chambermaid's gamekeeper husband. You begin to get the idea (or at least its outline), especially when the whole cast is thrown into close quarters during a retreat at a country home.

Despite the passing resemblance to a soap opera, Rules is after more than just romantic permutations. Nearly every character in the film is driven by what they can and can't do, even if they aren't entirely aware of this. They aren't rebels necessarily and the attempts at introspection seem almost more like they're justifying something they want to do anyway. In fact, Rules is almost novelistic in its character shifts and conflicting motives, similar perhaps to Jane Austen who can also appear superficially soapy without closer attention. The aviator's passion turns out to be perhaps something less noble, the gamekeeper is almost a stock comic character until the viewer discovers his depth of emotional attachment, the husband almost more a control aficionado than a Gallic lover. As one character remarks early in the film, everybody has their reasons (a comment that's been pulled out and attributed to Renoir much like Fritz Lang's comment about Cinemascope in Contempt). The catch, and what makes Rules so fascinating, is that those reasons aren't always very clear or consistent. The characters appear to move and live as people, not act out the decisions of a man behind the curtain.

Criterion has packed the set with bonus material to help approach the film. There's an audio commentary by Alexander Sesonske read by Peter Bogdanovich that teases out much insightful material though it's hard not to wish the reading was a bit more lively. Historian Christopher Faulkner analyzes in detail two scenes which only makes you wish he could have done the same for the entire film. There are a couple of short pieces about the film's production, two documentaries on Renoir, interviews with key figures, written tributes from various critics and filmmakers. In short, a full array of material that will help immerse you in Rules of the Game.

For more information about The Rules of the Game, visit Criterion Collection. To order The Rules of the Game, go to TCM Shopping.

by Lang Thompson
The Rules of the Game (1939), the last film Jean Renoir made in France before fleeing the Nazi invasion for the United States and Hollywood, is at once savage social satire and a compassionate comedy of manners with a sour undercurrent. Both shot and set in the dying days of the 1930s, as the Third Reich cast a long shadow over a seemingly impotent France, it was reviled and condemned upon its release, butchered beyond recognition in an attempt to make it palatable for audiences and finally banned as "demoralizing." Available only in a severely compromised version for decades (the original negative was destroyed in World War II), it was declared a rediscovered masterpiece when is was reconstructed and restored in 1959.

The film opens on the charge of celebration as young aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) lands in Paris after setting a speed record for crossing the Atlantic. While the crowds cheer, this hero emerges morose and dejected and commits a serious social faux pas when he confesses his disappointment that a particular woman is not waiting for him. In essence, he alludes to an affair on national radio. To avert a scandal, the cultured Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), husband to the aviator's mistress Christine (Nora Gregor) and a philanderer in his own right, invites all to a weekend hunting party in his country mansion.

The complicated maze of marriages and mistresses (both social register and servant class alike) that ensues combines the contours of a sophisticated bedroom comedy and a slapstick sex farce with a caustic view of class and the social code of manners and behavior - the "rules of the game" of the title - as played in a microcosm of French society. The frivolous high-society guests obliviously gossip, hunt, and fool around in a weekend in the country hosted by the bloodless, bored Chesnaye. While his wife Christine, the daughter of an Austrian conductor and a foreigner out of place in his social circle, dances around the moony attentions of the achingly sincere and socially naïve Andre, a similar triangle plays out in the servants quarters as a slapstick farce when a garrulous rabbit poacher (the hilarious Julien Carette, playing his part like an impulsive imp) is taken on as a domestic and proceeds to seduce the flirtatious young wife of the humorless Teutonic gamekeeper.

The parallel upstairs downstairs romantic triangles are the stuff of Shakespeare comedy, all social bearing and emotions hidden behind a cultivated manner, a kind of courtly dignity covering over the strife, among the guests while the less restrained servants are direct, earthy, crude and comic. That knockabout kitchen comedy leavens the seriousness of the social drama but reveals the cruelty and ferocity of emotion under the surface, while the prejudices (especially an unsetting streak of anti-Semitism, which the Jewish host quite purposely overlooks in his social assimilation), class divisions and social contracts that span all levels of the household are revealed in the distorting funhouse mirror reflection of the two classes.

Renoir himself takes a pivotal role as the jolly go-between and mediator, the eternal houseguest who becomes soured by the game when he realizes how hollow and meaningless it all is. He has a weary affection for these shallow creatures and foolish folk, who may be driven by their hearts, but when faced with the consequences of their actions they fall back on the learned instinct of social codes and proper decorum. The famous catch-phrase, "Everyone has his reasons" (the full line, spoken by Renoir's character, translates to "The terrible thing about this world is that everyone has their reasons") is transformed by Renoir from a statement of tolerance to a dismissal of behavior to ultimately an apologist's impotent excuse for the inexcusable by the tragic conclusion. and the film ends not so much with condemnation as disappointment, which is much more devastating.

The Rules of the Game is, to my mind, the greatest film of Renoir career. His direction is fluid and organic, a result of his improvisational approach to staging and his own rewriting during shooting as the characters defined themselves on the set, and he weaves the storylines and criss-crossing characters with such effortlessness that it never feels contrived. The hunt, by contrast, is less sport that slaughter, a weekend lark that turns thoughtlessly vicious and cruel as the party picks off one animal after another for no reason other than convention. The scene, which Renoir edits at an increasingly rapid, pace of rifles blasting and animals shot dead (this is pre-Humane Society filmmaking, so you can be assured that animals WERE harmed in the making of this film) and concludes with a rabbit shaking in its death throes, is as affecting today as it was then. It's not to show them as bloodthirsty and cruel but unfeeling and blithely destructive, playing at games of love and death while ignoring a genuine horror brewing in Europe, but the effect was the same for audiences of the day, who rejected this portrait of French society with a vengeance. Perhaps, as Renoir mused later, it was too perceptive and they didn't like seeing themselves revealed so nakedly on the screen. Or perhaps, all the anxiety of war hanging over them, people were in no mood to acknowledge the failings of their own culture. Whatever the reason, the film was routinely booed at screenings, withdrawn and reedited, ultimately losing about half an hour of footage, and finally banned by the government. Renoir was devastated.

It was only in 1959, after two young film technicians uncovered a cache of heretofore lost reels of negatives and film footage and (with the blessing and guidance of Renoir) reconstructed the original cut (Renoir said it was only missing one unimportant scene), that the film was reassessed and recognized as a masterpiece. The bittersweet treatment of the characters doesn't skimp on the bitter, but there is also a measured compassion for them, a formal beauty to the film's construction and a graceful handling of the ensemble as the characters change partners and dance without skipping a step. That mix of poetic realism, social satire, sophisticated high-society drama and slapstick farce may capture a particular place and time, but the human story is timeless.

Criterion originally released this on DVD in 2004 in what was then a state-of-the-art edition. It's been newly remastered in a high-definition digital restoration, which brings out greater detail, depth and texture. As it is mastered from a reconstruction of a film that was drastically re-edited after its release, from whatever materials survived (the original negative was destroyed in during World War II), the greater detail reveals more of the wear and damage, but that is an honest trade-off. Criterion was able to digitally clean up most of the scratches, grit and wear, and what's left is the legacy of film and time.

The Blu-ray and the new DVD editions both feature the supplements of the earlier DVD release, a mix of original and archival presentations. Created for the 2004 release is a commentary track written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, plus select scene commentary by Renoir historian Christopher Faulkner. Faulkner also contributes very effective video comparisons between the cut version and the 1959 reconstruction (and discusses how the longer 1959 film differs from Renoir's original cut) and a more detailed comparison between the endings of the two versions by film historian, offers in-depth analyses of two scenes and provides an interview on the production history. There are also contemporary interviews with set designer Max Douy, Renoir's son, Alain, and actress Mila Parély.

Among the archival supplements are an introduction to the film by Jean Renoir (which he filmed in the sixties for a television showing of the film), the episode La Regle et l'Exception from the 1966 French TV documentary series Jean Renoir le Patron (directed by Jacques Rivette and featuring interviews with Renoir and actor Marcel Dalio), the first part of David Thompson's 1995 BBC documentary Jean Renoir (an hour long) and archival interviews with Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand (who reconstructed the film in 1959). Also includes an accompanying booklet with an essay by Alexander Sesonske, archival pieces by Renoir and Henri Cartier-Bresson (who was renoir's assistant on the film) and tributes by Francois Truffaut, Paul Schrader, Bertrand Tavernier, Wim Wenders, and others.

For more information about The Rules of the Game, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Rules of the Game, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker