Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir, Mila Parely, Odette Talazac, Pierre Magnier, Pierre Nay, Richard Francoeur, Claire Gerard, Anne Mayen, Paulette Dubost, Gaston Modot, Julien Carette
Written by: Jean Renoir, Carl Koch
Directed by: Jean Renoir
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 106
Date: 07/07/1939

The Rules of the Game (1939)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Crossed Weekend

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A man lights his newspaper on fire, other people boo and hiss, others storm out into the night, while still others swoon, sitting on the curb and taking long walks to fully digest the miracle they've just seen.

Such was the reaction to Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, which opened in 1939 and was banned not long afterwards, during the Nazi occupation of France. Renoir cut the film down in hopes of saving it, but to no avail. Much of the negative for his original cut was subsequently destroyed during the war.

Historians managed to piece together a 106-minute version, longer than Renoir's original cut but not containing all the same scenes, that restored the film to its current reputation as the second greatest film ever made (it routinely ranks just after Orson Welles' Citizen Kane in movie polls).

Watching the film today, it's difficult to understand the reaction it received.

It's useful to compare The Rules of the Game to Renoir's second-best known film Grand Illusion. That film, made in 1937, was a worldwide hit and was even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The original camera negative, which had been confiscated by the Nazis, was discovered in the 1990s in pristine condition, making for a successful re-release in 2000.

One can't help but think that perhaps critics and other viewers have overcompensated for The Rules of the Game's initial and violent failure by ranking it above all of Renoir's other films. Certainly watching La Chienne, The Crime of Monsieur Lange, A Day in the Country, Grand Illusion or The Southerner also elicit similar feelings of watching greatness, and without much effort.

Nevertheless, The Rules of the Game is the one film that has inspired more filmmakers than any other film except perhaps Citizen Kane (and maybe, more recently, Reservoir Dogs).

The Rules of the Game concerns a weekend getaway for a group of France's elite at a country chateau. The Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio, later in Casablanca) and his beloved wife from Vienna, Christine (Nora Gregor), host the party. A famous aviator Andre Jurieu (Roland Toutain) has just returned from a remarkable trans-Atlantic flight and has been invited by Octave (Renoir). It so happens that both Andre and Octave are in love with Christine. That about wraps up the "upstairs" portion of the story.

Downstairs, the adorable maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) has attracted the attention of the poacher-turned servant Marceau (Julien Carette), much to the chagrin of Lisette's husband Schumacher (Gaston Modot).

I had to see The Rules of the Game three times before I even began to see its great depth. Its art lies in what Renoir chooses to exclude rather than what he includes. The film satirizes both the upper and lower classes without dipping into either sentiment or cynicism. "Everyone has his reasons," the Renoir character says at one point (though he prefaces it with "the most terrible thing is that...").

One reason the film may have offended so many is its brutal hunting scene, in which the rich participants merely wait with loaded guns while the servants drive rabbits and birds into their path. Renoir shows animal after animal gruesomely shot down, and casts a shadow over his upper-class characters.

None of the characters in The Rules of the Game can help how they feel, even if they can help how they behave. The aviator behaves terribly, announcing during a radio interview how disappointed he is that the woman he made the flight for hasn't bothered to show up. Likewise Marceau, who immediately begins to leer at and chase after the married Lisette. But, even their most abominable actions are completely recognizable and understandable.

The smallest moments can contain volumes, such as when the Marquis unveils a huge mechanical music box to his guests. Renoir's camera glides over the machine's many moving parts, then over Dalio's face, which registers a moving mixture of pride, anxiety and sadness. Without a word, we understand volumes about this man.

But Renoir's character Octave is the movie's glue. Like his off-screen counterpart, Octave "directs" the onscreen action. He connects with all the major characters in the film -- he's the only character comfortable hanging out with the servants -- and very often "guides" them with his enthusiasm or advice. But Octave is far from omnipotent or faultless. For the costume ball, he chooses a great galumphing bear costume, which he has trouble getting out of.

Unlike Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game is a crazy quilt of a film, almost accidental and haphazard, but held together by Renoir's fluid, virtually weightless camera. No trick shots here. Renoir is more interested in opening up the playing field and watching what happens. And over 60 years ago in a French chateau, he painted a portrait of each and every one of us.

The Criterion Collection has done a magnificent job with their 2004 2-disc DVD set, though it does contain many elements from the old laserdisc release. Among them, a rather dull commentary track on which Peter Bogdanovich reads comments written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske. It would have been more interesting to hear Bogdanovich's own comments, along with other filmmakers who have been influenced by the film. Among the many other extras are two partial documentaries, part one of a 1993 BBC program and excerpts from Jacques Rivette's 1966 television documentary. It's too bad the disc couldn't have housed these films in their entirety. I also enjoyed the written comments by various critics and filmmakers.

As for the film itself, it lacks the crystal sharpness of Criterion's Grand Illusion, but that disc was made from the original camera negative, whereas The Rules of the Game went through far more painstaking restoration from not-so-great elements. Still, this is undoubtedly the best version of the film ever seen, besides the original 1939 premiere.

Note: In 2011, The Criterion Collection released a Blu-Ray edition. Since the quality of the very best prints are not quite pristine, the transfer is probably not as fine as you might hope, but this is still the best possible way to see the movie. This edition has a delightful new box cover as well. Most of the extras are the same, except for an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.

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