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THE RULES OF THE GAME

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  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
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  January 20, 2004

“Believe it or not, you mean a lot to me.  I don’t know if it’s love or force of habit.”

Film ****

Citizen 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.

Much 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.

But 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.

Yet, 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.

It 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.

It 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.

That 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). 

But 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Kane might have 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.

Video ***  

Imagine 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.

Despite 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.

Audio **

Par 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.

Features ****

Only 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.

Disc 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.

Interviews 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 years.

Rounding out is another terrific Criterion booklet.

Summary:

The Rules of the Game is very simply one of those films that must be honestly tagged as one no cinema lover should miss.  Criterion’s extraordinary double disc offering is the way to go, with an impressive presentation and a generous package of extras.