THE RULES OF THE GAME
Review by Michael Jacobson
Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir, Mila Parely,
Paulette Dubost, Gaston Modot, Julien Carette
Director: Jean Renoir
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 106 Minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2004
it or not, you mean a lot to me. I
don’t know if it’s love or force of habit.”
Kane is most
frequently cited as the greatest film ever made (an opinion I share), but The
Rules of the Game could run a very close second. To some points of view, in fact, they are very equal in
stature. They do at least share a
kinship in what they meant to their creators.
has been made of how a brilliant young wunderkind named Orson Welles was drawn
to RKO Pictures with the most accommodating contract ever offered a filmmaker,
and how he proceeded to make the movie that would one day be called an indelible
masterpiece, but that at the time was shunned, railed against and more or less
cost him his creative freedom. Jean
Renoir didn’t suddenly burst on the scene in 1939…rather, he had been making
movies since 1924…but the tremendous popular and critical success of Grand
Illusion and La Bete Humaine had brought him to a point where he
could form his own production company and enjoy full creative freedom himself.
his status and freedom was also cut short by the first offering born from it.
The Rules of the Game was soundly rejected by public and critic
alike, forcing a shaken Renoir to cut, cut, cut his film down until there was
very little left of its heart or its teeth.
When World War II broke out, his native France banned it as a
demoralizing picture. A bombing
raid eventually resulted in the destruction of the negative.
Renoir would soon seek refuge in other countries as a means to rebuild
his shattered career.
as was the case with Welles, the film that nearly broke him simply needed time
and perspective to be appreciated. Looking
at The Rules of the Game today, especially after its painstaking
restoration to a 106 minute running time in 1959, it’s frankly hard to imagine
audiences jeering it. It’s an
eloquent statement of pure cinema, looking at the deteriorating class system
with both humor and alarm, appearing on the surface to be a bedroom farce, but
ultimately may have been a kind of condemning look at attitudes that would allow
for so much of Western Europe to eventually succumb to Nazism.
set the ground, in a way, for the so-called upstairs-downstairs films of later
years. Renoir’s vision is all
about class, and he tells his tale by juggling various love stories, mostly over
the course of a feast at a big country mansion where guests will dance and sing,
words of love and despair will be exchanged, and tragedy will ultimately fall.
begins with the arrival of Andre Jurieu (Toutain), an aviator who has just flown
solo across the Atlantic to beat Charles Lindbergh’s record.
Is he happy? No…he did it for a woman, who was not there to congratulate
him. As France proclaims him a
hero, he instead pines childishly in a live radio interview for the woman.
broadcast is heard by her. Christine
(Gregor), doesn’t react with disdain or horror, but merely ponders with her
servant Lisette (Dubost) whether men and women can just be friends.
The broadcast is also heard by her husband Robert (Dalio), who decides at
that moment to be a more worthy spouse to Christine and break off his affair
with his mistress Genevieve (Parely).
as the action moves towards the big shindig in the country, Octave (Renoir
himself), a mutual friend of the now despondent Andre and the innocent disarming
Christine convinces her to invite him just to calm him down (and it wouldn’t
hurt the party to have a national hero attend).
They all come, including Lisette, whose husband is Schumacher (Modot),
the groundskeeper for the estate. He
loves his wife. She loves her life of servitude more because it brings her
into the hearth of the upper classes.
tone is mostly light and erudite throughout, but there is a curious turning
point…the “hunt”, which is the big event of the feast.
It turns out not to be a hunt so much as a slaughter:
‘beaters’ march through the forest making as much noise as possible,
driving the animals out into the open where the guests simply mow them down
unmercifully with their shotguns. This
leads right back into the same tone as before, but things certainly feel
different from that point on. The
images of the hunt, which are comprised of masterfully edited montages by
Renoir, lend a sense of foreboding to the rest of the picture, turning a
supposedly joyful feast into a danse macabre.
characters, their stories, and the social commentary exist on one plane, but
Renoir’s fluent craftsmanship is really what elevates this movie into the
realm of influential masterpiece. The
camerawork, which often encircles complex scenes with multiple character play
and dimension, is simply amongst the best and most innovative the movies have
ever offered. Renoir’s deep focus
technique not only brings the incredible sets to vivid life, but also expands
his canvas to bring perspective. Some
of the features on this DVD discuss this in detail, but suffice to say, every
inch of every frame is filled with information.
just been a good story about a newspaper tycoon without the unbridled, artistic
spirit of its creator, who endeavored to tell a tale in ways that could only be
conveyed cinematically. The same
can be said for The Rules of the Game, which elevates a kind of chamber
play into a blissful experience of sight and sound.
Though it took a couple of decades for the world to catch up to it, it
can now rightfully be hailed as Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, and one of film’s
most treasured jewels.
stepping up to the plate with two strikes already against you.
Strike one: the negatives
for this film no longer exist for restoration.
Strike two: the film is 65
years old. Does Criterion therefore
strike out? Not by a long shot…as
is their reputation, they come through in the clutch.
the handicaps, Criterion delivers a surprisingly clean, clear and beautifully
crisp black and white presentation of Renoir’s masterpiece.
There may be a speck here, a soft line there, but nothing that can’t be
forgiven for a film from 1939. The
noted hodgepodge reassembly of this movie into its current form from various
parts doesn’t equate to a disjointed, uneven offering…far from it.
Though it would be great to have this film in any form, Criterion
doesn’t settle for less…once again, the deliver the goods for cineastes.
for the course for an older, mono soundtrack…everything seems intact and noise
is only minimal. Dialogue is in
French, but seems distinct throughout. Some
gunplay adds to the dynamic range.
slightly less joyful than the experience of the movie itself is Criterion’s
generous package of supplements. Disc
One features Renoir’s charming 1959 introduction to the film, as well as a
superb audio commentary scripted by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read by
director Peter Bogdanovich. It’s
very scene specific and rich in detail and analysis, and will no doubt be a real
treasure to film students There is
also analysis of selected scenes by Renoir historian Christopher Faulkner and a
detailed comparison of the truncated ending to the restored one, side by side
with narration pointing out how the cuts interrupted and even altered the feel
of the story.
Two contains some great stuff, starting with excerpts from two documentaries on
Renoir. “Jean Renoir, le
patron” was a three part TV movie made in France in 1966; we get the second
part here, which deals greatly with The Rules of the Game.
Part one of a 1993 BBC documentary on Renoir focuses on his pre-WWII
efforts, and even takes us to Renoir’s childhood home for a warm trip down
memory lane. A new video essay
discusses the production, release, and reconstruction, while an archived
interview with the restorers Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand offer even more
insights into the rebuilding of a masterpiece.
with set designer Max Douy, actress Mila Parely, and Renoir’s son Alain are
included, as well as a collection of written tributes to the film over the
out is another terrific Criterion booklet.