The Rules of the Game (Le Règle du jeu) [DVD]
Director : Jean Renoir
Screenplay : Carl Koch & Jean Renoir
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1939
Stars : Marcel Dalio (Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest), Nora Gregor (Christine de la Cheyniest), Roland Toutain (André Jurieux), Gaston Modot (Schumacher), Jean Renoir (Octave), Paulette Dubost (Lisette, sa Camériste), Mila Parély (Geneviève de Marras), Odette Talazac (Mme de la Plante), Claire Gérard (Mme de la Bruyère), Anne Mayen (Jackie), Julien Carette (Marceau, le braconnier)
François Truffaut called Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (Le Règle du jeu) “the credo of film lovers, the film of films.” Indeed, having been ranked as one of the 10 greatest films ever made on Sight & Sound’s influential International Critics’ Poll list since its inception in 1952, the intensity with which this film is now admired and revered is matched only by the vitriol and hatred it met upon its initial theatrical release in France in 1939 on the eve of World War II.
At the time of its disastrous premiere, Renoir was crushed, and he drastically re-edited the film down from 94 minutes to 81 minutes in the hopes of salvaging it, but it was to no avail. During the war, it was banned by both the French government and the occupying Nazis, and it wasn’t until the late 1950s, when it was “reconstructed” into a new 106-minute version by two film buffs with Renoir’s blessing that the film truly came into its own and was recognized for the masterpiece that it is.
Renoir made The Rules of the Game as a blunt critique of French society, particularly the snobbish upper crust—the haute bourgeoisie—whose monetary security afforded them not only a lavish lifestyle, but the blind option of ignoring the chaos of the world around them by insulating themselves in their own silly, ultimately meaningless preoccupations. The “game” of the title is love, not in the sense of true, abiding emotion felt between two people that lasts a lifetime, but rather the amorous adventures of seduction and betrayal. The “rules” of the game boil down to the idea that it must all be in fun—it must remain a “game.” The second any genuine emotion infiltrates this world of petty sex, everything threatens to come toppling down.
This is precisely what happens when a young aviator, André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), falls in love with Christine (Nora Gregor), the wife of the Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio). Robert, meanwhile, is having an affair with a wealthy socialite, Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély), despite the fact that he feels true affection for his wife and wants to end the affair. André is heartbroken that Christine does not return his affections, particularly after he makes a daring flight across the Atlantic just for her and she fails to show up at the airfield when he lands. Seeing the André is near suicidal in his despair, his friend Octave (Jean Renoir), convinces Christine that André should be invited to a hunting party her husband is hosting at his country chateau.
The majority of the film takes place at the chateau, where the hunt is on both literally and figuratively. Renoir introduces a new kink into the plot with a second love triangle, this one between the chateau’s blustery gameskeeper, Schumacher (Gaston Modot); his wife, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who is Christine’s maid; and Marceau (Julien Carette), a local poacher whom Robert hires as a domestic. Thus, the film centers around two interlocking love triangles, one among the wealthy and the other among their servants, which allows Renoir to show how, despite their obvious class-based differences, there is much similarity in their amorous preoccupations. The film shows that the serving class has essentially absorbed the attitudes of their employers; the only difference between them is that the servants don’t feel a need to maintain a façade of propriety, which is illustrated by Marceau’s shamelessly chasing Lisette around the kitchen.
When it was first released, The Rules of the Game was roundly criticized for its pessimistic view of French society, and the government banned it because it felt it was demoralizing to the country. The film has also suffered criticisms of its plot, namely that it often comes across as clumsily constructed and phony. In a sense, that is a valid critique, something Renoir’s most ardent admirers would likely concede. Even André Bazin, the influential French critic and theorist who named The Rules of the Game as his all-time favorite film, wrote that “Renoir himself has never been able to ‘construct’ a scenario … Renoir has always been more concerned with the creation of characters and situations in which they could express themselves rather than with a story.”
This tendency of Renoir’s is obvious in the somewhat arbitrary nature of the plot of The Rules of the Game and the manner in which it unfolds. The hunt itself is a good example, as plotwise it serves no purpose. In fact, the flow of the film up until that point is literally interrupted by the hunting sequence, which differs insistently in both tone and style from what came before and what comes after. Yet, it is crucial because it is both the film’s central metaphor and a perfect situation in which the characters can express their true selves. Renoir spends a great deal of time in the middle of the film showing us the wealthy weekenders gamely shooting down rabbits and birds, not for the meat, but merely for the sport. The blithe manner in which the bourgeois hunters flush out the animals and gun them down comes to represent their insular, self-interested approach to life. Little matters to them except for what brings them pleasure, consequences be damned.
And the ultimate consequence in The Rules of the Game turns out to be cold-blooded murder, which Renoir views as the ultimate sacrifice needed for the haute bourgeoisie to maintain their way of life. The rules had been broken, so someone had to pay. If that sounds deeply cynical, it is; yet Renoir, despite his clear intention of social critique (despite a disclaimer at the beginning of the film arguing otherwise), never makes everything so simple as black and white. While the vast majority of his characters are deeply flawed and, quite simply, rather unlikable, he never goes so far as to make them complete cads. They lie, cheat, and betray all in their own petty self-interests, yet Renoir manages to maintain a balance of humanism amid all the darkness of his scathing black comedy.
It is Octave, played by Renoir himself, who says the film’s most crucial line of dialogue: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons.” That is, although we can stand back and judge the pettiness of the characters’ immoral lives, in their minds they have justified their pursuits, just as we have justified ours. Every action has a “reason,” and therefore, in some sense, it can be justified. It creates a vicious circle of moral relativism, which is perhaps what Renoir recognized as being most dangerous of all, especially at a time when the world was on the brink of complete annihilation. It is a lesson that we would do well to heed today and in the future.
|The Rules of the Game Special Edition Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set|
|The version of The Rules of the Game presented on this DVD is the complete 106-minute reconstructed version.|
|Audio||French Dolby 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske, read by Peter Bogdanovich|
Selected scene analysis by Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner
French TV programJean Renoir, le patron: La Règle et l’ execption
Part One of BBC documentary Jean Renoir
Video essay about the film’s production, release, and reconstruction
Interview with Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand
Interview with Renoir’s son, Alain Renoir
Interview with set designer Max Douy
Interview with actress Mila Parély
Written tributes by Paul Schrader, Alain Resnais, Amy Taubin, Luc Sante, Robin Wood, Noah Braumbach, Kent Jones, Kenneth Bowser, Wim Wenders, J. Hoberman, Peter Cowie, Cameron Crowe, and Robert Altman
24-page insert booklet
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||January 20, 2004|
|The Rules of the Game is presented in a new high-definition transfer made from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. This is about the closest to the source Criterion could get because the original negatives of The Rules of the Game were accidentally destroyed during a bombing raid in World War II. Therefore, when the film was reconstructed in the late 1950s, the work had to be done from bits of existing prints and workprints. You’d never know it from looking at this DVD, which is absolutely beautiful, especially given the film’s age and its troubled history. Digital scrubbed via the MTI Digital Restoration System has further enhanced the clarity and cleanliness of the crisp black-and-white image, ensuring a fine level of detail and contrast throughout.|
|The digitally restored monaural soundtrack, taken from a 35mm magnetic audio track, has some traces of ambient hiss, but is otherwise quite clean and clear.|
|In this two-disc set, Criterion has done an outstanding job of assembling a treasure trove of historical and analytical materials to put this important film in its proper context. |
The first disc contains the same audio commentary written by Renoir scholar Alexander Sesonske and read by film historian and director Peter Bogdanovich that appeared on the 1989 Criterion laser disc. It is an insightful and detailed textual and historical analysis of the film. Added to this is a select audio commentary by scholar Christopher Faulkner, who analyzes three major sequences. Faulkner, who has been studying the various versions of The Rules of the Game for more than a decade, also contributes a side-by-side comparison of the film’s ending in its 81-minute version and its 106-minute version. This analysis is so intriguing that it makes one wish Criterion had been able to include the entirety of the 81-minute version of the film via seamless branching (sadly, the 94-minute version that premiered in 1939 has long been lost).
The second disc continues with more supplemental material, mostly documentaries and interviews. First up is La Règle et l’ exception (30 min.), the second part of Jean Renoir, le patron, a three-part French TV program on Jean Renoir produced in 1966 by Jacques Rivette for the series Cinéastes. Next is the first part of Jean Renoir (1 hour), a two-part documentary produced for the BBC in 1993 (it features old interviews with Renoir along with new interviews with his family and friends, as well as filmmakers such as Peter Bogdanovich and Bernardo Bertolucci). The film’s complex production history is covered in a video essay narrated by Chris Faulkner, which covers the entire history of the film, and a 1965 TV interview with Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand, the two men who prepared the restored version in 1959. The disc is rounded out with new video interviews with Renoir’s son, Alain Renoir, and set designer Max Douy, as well as a 1995 interview with actress Mila Parély. Also included are a series of tributes written by scholars such as J. Hoberman, Robin Wood, and Peter Cowie and filmmakers such as Robert Altman, Paul Schrader, and Wim Wenders.
The nicely designed insert booklet includes an essay by Alexander Sesonske; Renoir’s original scenario; an excerpt from Renoir’s autobiography My Life and My Films; an essay by director Bertrand Tavenier; excerpts from writings by François Truffaut, one of the film’s greatest admirers; and an excerpt by actor Henri Cartier-Bresson from Jean Renoir: Letters.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick