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The Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game
Criterion 216
1939 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 106 min. / La Règle du jeu / Street Date January 20, 2003 / 39.95
Cinematography Jean-Paul Alphen, Jean Bachelet, Jacques Lemare, Alain Renoir
Production Designer Max Douy, Eugène Lourié
Costume Design Coco Chanel
Film Editor Marthe Huguet, Marguerite Renoir
Original Music Roger Dèsormiéres
Written by Carl Koch and Jean Renoir
Produced by Claude Renoir
Directed by Jean Renoir

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This Jean Renoir comedy was always touted in film school as the key French classic, but the prints available in 1973 were so poor as to make it almost incomprehensible to those students that didn't speak French. The Rules of the Game is a sophisticated satire that revolves around a madcap week in a country mansion where illicit loves and jealousies play out among the wealthy folk and their servants. It was reportedly a flop upon its release in 1939 but critics and boosters such as Orson Welles later elevated it to the status of one of the best films ever made. This Criterion special edition compiles the key research to let us understand the film, while restoring it to a visual polish not seen before.


Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio) and his beautiful wife Christine (Nora Grégor) invite a mob of socialites to his country mansion La Colinière for a week of merriment and hunting. Among them are his long-time mistress Genviève (Mila Parély), her new amour, famous aviator André Jurieu (Roland Toutain), and friendly hanger-on Octave (Jean Renoir). Meanwhile, Christine's maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is avoiding her husband, gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) to flirt with the scallywag Marceau (Julien Carette), a poacher newly promoted to bootblack. The guests try to sort out their private affairs in the very public country gathering, outdoing one another with their selfish desires and equally self-serving gestures of sophisticated tolerance.

How to make the right film at the wrong time, commercially speaking: Jean Renoir fashioned a critical satire of his society, making fun of the shortcomings and petty interests of well-to-do Frenchmen just as those same weaknesses seemed to be tilting the country into a new war completely unprepared. His characters are rich, vain, and lost in their own sense of romanticism.

The people here all seek some kind of happiness through love but fritter their dignity away on cheap games that only prove the shallowness of their desires. Robert is obsessed with his hobby, mechanical music boxes and a giant musical wagon that represent all the order and perfection missing in the pointless charades played during the weekend of hunting. The leading lady wants the world to revolve around the problems of her heart, yet she assumes that everyone else's amours are cheap physical betrayals. A celebrity hero is a romantic dunce who thinks absconding with another man's wife is okay if one does it under chivalrous rules of conduct. Robert is willing to prove his love by letting his wife go without a fight, when all he needs to keep her is let her know how irreplaceable she is. A slightly oafish fifth-wheel confidante throws himself into a romantic hysteria of his own. And the collected guests cooly observe the hanky-panky real and imagined, while congratulating themselves on their 'sophisticated' acceptance of it all.

Renoir puts his ideas about class to work as well - the servants are equal their masters for meanness and intolerance, denigrating their boss with their anti-Semitic remarks. The big difference between them and their employers is their lack of bourgeois 'sophistication' - when a husband in the servant ranks catches his wife with another man, fights break out.

Renoir's satire isn't about making people do outrageous things or giving them funny names - there's not a single unlikeable character here. Robert is a sweetheart who wants everyone to be happy; the aggressive gamekeeper just wants his wife back. A rascal poacher is invited to work in the household, leading immediately to the same chaos seen in Renoir's Boudou Saved from Drowning. Robert's old flame sincerely believes his marriage is a bust. The aviator isn't a villain, he just can't avoid his obsession with Robert's wife.

Renoir himself plays the 'fifth wheel' friend, the one who has everyone's confidence and innocently betrays them all. He wears a giant bear costume in the masquerade and becomes the story's clown. And the story has a message to deliver, the one that directly relates the film to the country and the times, Renoir's character is the one to deliver it.

Nervous Parisian audiences probably came to The Rules of the Game for reassurance and instead found a demanding and (then) shocking picture. No virtuous main characters emerge to set a moral tone. The ignorant attitudes of the rich (one woman thinks America was inhabited by Negroes before Columbus landed) aren't set aside or overruled by sentimentality. Just before the big party that comprises the story's second half, there's a graphic hunt scene showing in rapid cuts the slaughter of scores of birds and rabbits, many dying onscreen. The violence and shooting must have reminded audiences of the specter of war hovering on their doorstep, and the aloof hunters blasting the game while making small talk about the cute squirrels in the trees, seem like inhuman monsters. After that, the silly party games come off as reprehensible, and the tragic mixup of the finale a conspiratorial coverup by a corrupt class.

Most of the excellent cast is unfamiliar to casual film fans. Exception Marcel Dalio is instantly recognizable from Casablanca and had a long French career apart from his many memorable roles in American films. The kittenish maid Paulette Dubost, had a 70-year stretch in comedies and classics like Lola Montés. Mila Parély is remembered as the mean sister in Beauty and the Beast. Julien Carette, the poacher, is a funnyman from Grand Illusion1 Gaston Modot, the gameskeeper was a fixture in French and Spanish classics by Buñuel, Renoir, Prevért and Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko). As an ensemble they mesh perfectly.

The Rules of the Game has been praised as one of the best pictures ever made and used as a model by many filmmakers like Woody Allen, Blake Edwards and especially Robert Altman, whose Gosford Park now seems practically a remake. The French original is not an easy picture to fully comprehend on a first viewing, especially when too much of one's attention goes to reading the wordy film's fast subtitles. But even if a lot of it slips by, you know you've just seen something incredible.

The wealth of extras in Criterion's special edition of The Rules of the Game is staggering. The picture has a complex story to say the least, and several docus, interviews, and new materials get us right to the heart of the issues involved. Several pieces detail the restoration process. Renoir cut it drastically to 81 minutes right after the disastrous premiere, removing most of his own role.  3 In the 60s, the film was restored and actually made twelve minutes longer than it was at its premiere.

Analytical side by side comparisons show how the shortest version changed the entire mood and tenor of the film via radical cuts in the last scene. These kinds of visual aids allow a difficult film with a convoluted and misunderstood history to make sense. Savant confesses that before the Criterion disc, he really didn't understand the film at all.  2

Several substantial documentaries use interviews with Renoir and his associates to tell the story of his life and amazing career up to The Rules of the Game and the Second World War. The director and a host of subsequent directors explain and analyze his methods - composing in depth, dramatizing in depth, and keeping scenes running in complex, unbroken takes. The movie has a sense of freedom for actors and the camera that makes the narrative an unplanned series of events instead of a scripted story; many rigid modern dramas (including a clutch of this year's Oscar contenders) seem constipated in comparison.

Renoir's command and understanding of his characters is revealed in his long and lucid interviews -- he immediately makes sense of the character of Christine, explaining her muddled romanticism and changing moods as natural: There is no deeper reasoning behind her behavior, he says, there are people who fall in and out of love every day.

The full list of extra goodies is below. Besides Renoir, the disc allows us to learn about other actors and people like Eugène Lourié, the art director. He and Renoir fled France for America, one because he was Jewish and the other because of his previous Communist associations.

Criterion's film and digital restoration methods are by now so well known that comparison featurettes are no longer needed. The picture is not without some fluttering contrast and the occasional soft shot or slightly damaged moment, but none of this is distracting. Clips of earlier versions in the docus show what the movie used to look like, and the improvement is amazing. Ditto on the soundtrack, which is almost free of distortion. For a film recovered after the original negative was destroyed in WW2 bombing, this looks terrific.

Criterion's Joanna Schiller is the producer of this superlative disc set.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Rules of the Game rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Introduction by Jean Renoir, audio commentary by film scholar Alexander Sesonske, read by Peter Bogdanovich, selected commentary by Renoir historian Christopher Faulkner, Jean Renoir le Patron: La Regle et l'Exception (1966), a French television program featuring interviews with Renoir and actor Marcel Dalio, video essay about the film's production, release, and later reconstruction, Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand discuss their reconstruction and re-release of the film (1965), New interview with Renoir's son, Alain, an assistant cameraman on the film, New interview with set designer Max Douy, Written tributes by Francois Truffaut, Paul Schrader, Bertrand Tavernier, Wim Wenders, and others.
Packaging: folding plastic and card case in plastic sheath
Reviewed: January 17, 2004


1. Carette is one of the stars of a mysterious French film called Croisières Sidérales. It has a Twilight Zone - type story about Eisensteinian science messing up the romantic plans of space travellers who go faster than the speed of light ... and it was made in 1943! Does anyone know of this movie ever being shown, or any reviews of it beyond Hardy's Science Fiction Encyclopedia? Even Bill Warren hasn't seen this one!

2. Which brings up a question about film fandom. I'm a normal viewer in many respects and my initial reaction to The Rules of the Game is confusion and a slight disappointment. Then I read all the material and watch most of the docus and interviews in this disc, and I'm suddenly converted into praising the film as well. This makes me face some irrefutable truths: I'm not the most perceptive critic in the world, and I don't necessarily respond with aesthetic fervor to each bona fide classic I see. And that's okay.

3. It seems like Renoir got the critical drubbing that a decade before had been reserved for Abel Gance. Gance's problems with his distributors were about wild spending and chaotic production, but he aggravated them by casting himself in his films and attracting attention to his ego. In La fin du monde he played two roles, one of them a Jesus-like figure who gets crucified!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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