Each era and every decade in the cinema has a handful of must-see films. Jean Renoir's The Rules of The Game (or La Règle du jeu if you will) is such a film.
Made in 1939 The Rules of the Game is at once a lighthearted French comedy and a sharp social critical drama of the French bourgeoisie at the time that the inevitability of war loomed over Europe. Yet even though it helps to understand the context of the time period in which it was made the film is enjoyable enough for any viewer to appreciate.
Unlike many films made in the 1930's (and made today) The Rules of the Game has no main character. Instead there are a series of central characters from various social standings– from upper class to servant – each of whom have their moments and attention in the seemingly free flowing narrative.
There is Andre (Roland Toutain) the weak-willed romantic pilot, the Austrian aristocrat Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Gregor), her insouciant husband the Marquise de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), his mistress the upper class inamorata Genevieve de Marras (Mila Parely), Schumacher (Gaston Modot) the steward / gamekeeper of the house, his wife the cheerful maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), the foolish new hire Marceau (Julien Carette) who runs after the maid, the spirited friend of everyone Octave (played by Renoir), and a host of others.
After a somewhat slow start in which some of the characters are introduced the film really takes off once everyone arrives at a château named Château de la Coliniere. From here the film takes a much more harried and humorous pace as it winds towards two significant scenes and an ending that is at once tragic and nonchalant.
The film's center piece revolves around a rabbit and pheasant hunt. Each of the Château guests go out for the morning and set up to shoot the small critters that are scared out of the forest by a walking procession of men thumping trees. As the critters exit their hiding places most of them are instantly shot dead and we see it all in its gruesome glory. Yes, animals were hurt in the making of this film.
The salient point of this hunt (which has a breathless 51 shots in four minutes) is that when innocence is exposed it gets shot down quickly. And what's more – in this case – innocence gets shot down for the sport of it. The characters that make up the social set in The Rules of the Game are mostly frivolous characters who have questionable morals and even worse ethics but most of them know the 'rules of the game', which prevents them from being hurt. They know how to cheat, lie, steal and even kill and when these things affect their own lives they shake it off and go on. Renoir, of course, was making a very frank assessment of the French bourgeoisie at the time and because of this the film was initially savaged by critics and audiences alike.
It should be noted that there are no unlikable characters or particularly bad characters in the film. Renoir is very judicious he doesn't chide or look down at any of the characters even when he is critiquing them. Part of the reason Renoir is able to stay above the fray while savaging a whole class of people is because he does not wield a heavy hand or force a message upon the audience. Instead he lets the events unfold revealing characters, situations and motivations with ease and without judgment.
Another reason the film seems less critical than it is that many of his scenes – especially at the chateau – have an improvisational feel to them. The camera tracks and pans about freely, the editing appears random and the tone of each scene pleasurable. It is easy to see the influence Renoir had on Robert Altman.
In 1939 the French crowds liked the sharp satires Renoir had done in such films as La Chienne, Boudu Saved From Drowning and The Crime of Monsieur Lange and they loved the humanity that came through in Grande Illusion and A Day in the Country but when Renoir turned his 'light hearted' comedic style virtually at a whole class of people rather than one or two characters they didn't much like it. As a result the film was cut by 13 minutes and then closed soon after only to be salvaged by critics years later in 1959 with an additional 24 minutes added on. This DVD is the longer version since the original 94 minute version no longer exists.
It's easy to see in retrospect that The Rules of the Game is a culmination of all that Renoir had done before; the social commentary along with the free spirited tone. Renoir was a seasoned director by the time the film came out. This was his 14th full-length film and the films masterful effortlessness could only be achieved by someone who had made many films. By comparison most great first films (like Citizen Kane or Reservoir Dogs) feel measured and take many stylistic chances. The Rules of the Game feels lived in and charges along as if things are happening in real time.
The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and was transferred at an average bitrate of 7.27 mb/s and looks pretty good compared to any video or film print out there. No doubt Criterion has done all they could to remove dirt and specs but it still has the look of a film its age. It doesn't look as sharp as Grande Illusion but that particular print was stashed away in a vault for years while the original negatives for The Rules of the Game were destroyed in 1942 during the war.
The audio is presented in French Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and sounds okay. The films has a lot of dialogue and the audio track is less than stellar but much of it can be blamed on the original source sound available at the time. Much of the sound has a canned live feel to it and most all of the sound was done on the set so it is understandable that it would be less fleshed out than what we are used to today. Still I can't imagine that the sound would have been much better in 1939.
Criterion has really done it right with the extras and has made the film enjoyable for casual viewers and scholars alike. This is a two disc set and it's so full of good extras it's difficult to say which one I like best. First up is a six minute Introduction by Jean Renoir in which he describes making a 'classic film about a rotten society.' There is a fine Commentary track written by Alexander Sesonske and read by Peter Bogdanovich [way back in 1989]. There is a well researched and presented Comparison section presented by Renoir scholar Chris Faulkner that compares the 81 minute reedited 1939 version and the restored 1959 version that lasts about 13 minutes. In conjunction with this section is the final eight minutes of The short version ending. Next up is a seven minute Scene analysis with commentary by Chris Faulkner in which he discusses two scenes in depth. Rounding out Disc One is an Analysis of the shooting script which explains - in onscreen text - the script. We get to see some of the actual script with Renoirs pen markings.
Disc Two is full of documentaries. First up is Jean Renoir: le patron a 1966 French TV program hosted by a couple critics [one is the now semi-famous director Jacques Rivette] that lasts 31 minutes and is a very candid and enjoyable conversation. In one section Renoir goes to the set of the château and interviews Marcel Dalio. Then there is part one of an excellent Documentary titled Jean Renoir by David Thompson made for BBC TV in 1993 that lasts an hour. It includes numerous interviews, history and analysis of Renoir's life and films. I would recommend watching this extra first since it gives a good background to Renoir's life and is the most thorough of all the extras – save the commentary track. Next is an eight minute Video Essay of the film's production and reconstruction by Chris Faulkner. Then there is a Vintage interview with Jean Gaberit and Jacques Durand from 1959 who financed and reconstructed the film and added 24 minutes giving us the film as we know it today. Next there are Three interviews with cast and crew: One with assistant cameraman Alain Renoir, another with set designer Max Douy and another with actress Mia Parely all of which add a little bit more info to the film. Last are text comments by great directors and critics who praise the film. The great thing about all of these extras is that they don't reiterate what other extras have already told us. Each of them stands alone and each of them is significant in their own right. Their too is a 24 page booklet with essays and critiques of the film.
The Rules of the Game was savaged by audiences in 1939 and then salvaged by critics twenty years later when it was praised as one of the greatest films ever made. Seen today it has definitely stood the test of time. The Criterion Collection has done a top notch job (again) with a film that more than deserves respect. It is required viewing for anyone who loves French cinema or just cinema in general. The DVD would be great in any DVD library.