The Rules of the Game has been part of the film canon for so long that it’s valuable to remind audiences how gloriously alive and just plain fun it is. Low comedy walks hand and hand with tragedy and beauty throughout; the film is frothy one minute, nearly apocalyptic the next, and so you’re never fully allowed to gather your bearings. The Rules of the Game has a tone that could be symbolized by the escalating merry-go-round that prominently plays into the climax of Strangers on a Train—up and down, all around and seemingly totally out of control. The film, as Paul Schrader says in this Criterion edition’s liner notes, represents all of cinema’s possibilities in 106 minutes.
That controlled chaos is partially driven by anger and despair. Jean Renoir often said that the film was a response to his frustrations with the bourgeoisie at a time in which France was clearly imperiled. In the late ’30s, France had just surrendered Munich to the Nazis as a gesture to cool mounting threats of invasion, a gesture that was clearly fated to fail. The unmistakable indifference and self-absorption of the wealthy elite—just one reason this film hasn’t aged one iota—in the midst of this potential disaster fueled Renoir’s anxiety. But Renoir, like most major artists, wasn’t content to mount a polemic, and probably couldn’t even if he wanted to. One of cinema’s most appreciated humanists, Renoir couldn’t help himself; he had to assert even the most misguided and contemptible people’s humanity.
The heart of Renoir’s genius was his gift for hiding that genius. Expertly controlled, The Rules of the Game plays as one huge happy accident that might’ve been caught on the fly over the course of a long drunken weekend. Everything is just right, and the performances and individual moments are so remarkably alive that you accept the elaborate structure and symbolism as organic. Robert Altman clearly learned a few things from Renoir, particularly in his use of deep camera focus and sound design, and I wish that more contemporary filmmakers would follow suit. There’s no mystery as to why so many directors rip off Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese these days, as you can, even in their great films, see the directing take place. It’s the director as the entire show. Renoir was usually most of the show himself (he generally collaborated on his scripts, and served in uncredited capacities in a number of other ways), but his technique was so masterful that, as Pauline Kael once said, it was subsumed into his art. The Rules of the Game, like all Renoir films, isn’t about the making of itself, and that artistic purity allows for profundity.
The film concerns a long weekend for a number of wealthy and famous French (with one notable exception) men and women at a large country estate. On paper, The Rules of the Game is a traditional drawing-room comedy that follows the varying romantic trade-offs of a number of seemingly bored and vain individuals who gradually reveal themselves to be in the kind of extreme pain that we, in our frustration, generally only associate with people who’ve fallen on more conventionally hard times. But money doesn’t relieve certain existential and biological needs, and Renoir follows these characters as their pettiness slowly washes away to reveal despair. This despair, however, doesn’t absolve them of the role they’re playing in their country’s disillusionment and potential undoing, and it’s that toughness of contradiction that gives The Rules of the Game its ambiguous bite.
The film’s exposition is elegant and efficient. In the opening, the pilot Jurieux (Roland Toutain) has just completed a long flight across the Atlantic that rivals the accomplishment of Lindbergh. The press is surrounding Jurieux, prying him for headline-ready sentiments, and he promptly squanders a glorious moment with a peevish lashing out. Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Gregor), whom he supposes to be the love of his life, hasn’t deigned to show up for Jurieux’s triumph. That she’s married to Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) is of no consequence, an illustration of the blinded self-entitlement that informs the entire film.
Jurieux’s good friend Octave (Renoir) is also Christine’s childhood friend, and, as compensation, Octave assures Jurieux that he can get him invited to Robert’s country house that weekend. That promise, idly made, involves a number of careful negotiations on the part of Octave, which leads to a wonderful series of sequences in which Octave, whom we learn is a failed artist living on the donations of friends such as Robert and Christine, must play the parts of the loyal friend as well as of the good-natured bumbler who’s out to help another. Octave collapses into Christine’s bed with her, assuring her of her responsibility to a man she perhaps led on a little. The disconcerting intimacy of their moment, an instance of foreshadowing, is a quiet testament to Renoir’s tonal mastery. But Octave can’t be distracted, moving on to cater to Robert’s ego and insecurity, which isn’t so hard considering that Robert’s own mistress, Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély), will also be at the country house that weekend.
Renoir establishes all of that in about 20 minutes, leading the film to the country house where this world will be shaken up and expanded upon. With the wealthy characters in play, we’re now free to learn of the help that subtlety governs their masters’ lives. We’ve already met Christine’s private maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), whom we learn is married to Robert’s groundskeeper, Schumacher (Gaston Modot). Schumacher, a hopeless and moving prig, is displaced and adrift in a world that thinks nothing of casually trading lovers. Schumacher’s devotion to Lisette is stifling and sexless, exasperating her libidinous tendencies (she’s had a thing with Octave already), which leads to her pairing with Marceau (Julien Carette) a poacher who Robert inexplicably hires as indoor help. The inexplicable is telling: Robert feels an immediate kinship with Marceau that’s emotionally logical, as Marceau is the sort of spontaneous ruffian that can play to a pampered man’s idea of the road not taken.
Virtually every scene in the film is striking in one way or another. I’ve seen The Rules of the Game probably 10 times and my jaw still nearly literally drops at the brilliance of certain shots, such as a number of Renoir’s compositions of crowds in the ominous party scene that constitutes much of the last third of the film. And the hunting scene, justly praised, is a daring deviation from the generally misleading amiability of the tone that pays off beautifully; a rapid near-montage of rabbits and pheasants being slaughtered more or less for idle sport allows Renoir to tap his rage without entirely tipping his hand. One rabbit especially (you’ll know it when you see it) dies a prolonged horrible death that ranks as one of the most disturbing instances of destruction in the movies. That it serves a dual function—as a foreshadowing of a major character’s needless death—is simply another illustration of the density of Renoir’s construction.
These aren’t idle details, as the film is really about the potential destruction of society. But The Rules of the Game is so graceful with its volley of character trade-offs, both romantic and platonic, that you can’t help but fall in a kind of love with it, a qualified love that still understands the sourness, the sadness, that gently informs every part of the film. We come to see the characters and their lifestyles as a tragic charade. The rules of the game are arbitrary stabs at pretend morality that can foster truly immoral behavior, as the rules of the game twist people up and confuse them. And the confusion that these games (ones we’ve never abandoned) inspire, which feeds into an unending inner regard, can destroy us. Even people who love The Rules of the Game, indisputably one of the greatest movies of all time, can overlook its toughness, which is, as an essayist acknowledges in the Criterion liner notes, even obvious in the fashion that most people misquote the most famous line. As Octave, Renoir never said, “Everyone has their reasons,” a sentiment that implies a certain benign, detached understanding of foible. Octave says something far tougher to entirely resolve: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons.”
The image is sharp and clear with strikingly little haloing considering the film's age, and Jean Renoir's stunning use of deep-focus imagery is a revelation. It has been clear from other editions of the DVD what Renoir was after in his images, but the transfer here imbues the film with a newfound majesty. In other words, a great film just got a little better. The sound is exceptionally well mixed, doing full justice to the density of Renoir's mixture of fore and background sound effects. A wonderful transfer.
The commentary, written by Alexander Sesonske and read by director Peter Bogdanovich, is an unapologetically specific discussion of virtually every decision that Renoir made regarding the film. Symbolism, plot, and shot construction are the dominant concerns here, and I, as a longtime fan of the film, heard quite a few revelatory observations. The motif of pairs of characters switching is even deeper and richer than I first noticed, and this commentary dissects the varying double and triple meanings of scenes without smothering the life out of the film—a tricky act to manage. Historian Chris Faulkner's scene-by scene analysis of the film's endings documents the changes Renoir made after the disastrous early screenings in Paris in 1939. Until the film's restoration in the late 1950s, the version of The Rules of the Game most readily available was 81 minutes long, and these featurettes establish that that cut of the film was harsher and more obvious, as many of the snips involved the romantic portions that Renoir used as devastating and misleading contrast. The original ending is available here, and the sequences are, indeed, considerably less coherent.
Jean Gabroit and Jacques Durand were the enterprising cinephiles who pored over footage previously thought destroyed to ultimately restore The Rules of the Game to the 106-minute version that's widely accepted as a masterpiece today. The interview with Gabroit and Durand included here, which took place in 1965 six years after their successful restoration, effectively complements Faulkner's shot-by-shot analysis to provide a full history of the film's miraculous phoenix-like rebirth. Gabroit and Durand also tell a story that's heartbreaking: They showed their cut to the master filmmaker, which was, keep in mind, 20 years after the film's mangling and humiliating dismissal at the box office. Renoir watched, stood up once the film ended, and walked out without a word, though it was obvious he had been crying. A moment divine enough to have appeared in a Renoir film. The video essay about the film's production, release, and 1959 reconstruction and the interview with critic Olivier Curchod cover similar ground excellently, but it's this anecdote, related by two lovers of cinema who were able to extend a major gesture to a hero, that lingers.
"Jean Renoir, Le Patron" was a three-part French television special from the 1960s that primarily allowed Renoir to speak about his own films, and the portion pertaining to The Rules of the Game is highlighted here. One of the interviewers, interestingly, is Jacques Rivette, a clear admirer who asks Renoir refreshingly interesting questions pertaining to the film's inception, theme, and reception. One particularly notable topic is the question of who the main character is in The Rules of the Game, and if the film has a "center," or, basically one scene that defines it. Renoir says no, that there's no primary character and no center, but Rivette politely disagrees to an extent, asserting that Renoir's character Octave, the flexible fellow who can operate on multiple planes of society, is the true lead. This reviewer agrees, and, would also like to suggest that the film does have a central scene: the final, bittersweet encounter between Octave and Christine, which manages to show everything that's at stake and everything that the rules of the game ultimately quash.
David Thompson's BBC documentary "Jean Renoir" is terrific and well-textured, but I have one quibble: Why only include the first part of the two-parter? Most of the documentary is more concerned with Renoir the man than any particular film, so it seems a little incomplete to stop with the first part, which ends with Renoir's trip to America shortly after The Rules of Game failed with moviegoers. But that's a quibble, and any certain gaps are covered and reaffirmed with the other essays, tributes, and interviews with varying collaborators and friends that round out this collection. Other than the thread left dangling by the incompletion of the Thompson doc, I can't really think of anything else anyone might want from a Rules of the Game disc.
You officially no longer have an excuse not to own one of the greatest of all films.