Criterion // 1939 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // November 28th, 2011
Robert: "Corneille! Put an end to this farce!"
Corneille: "Which one, your lordship?"
In 1939, the most popular pastime in Europe was trying to convince each other that war was not just around the corner. The upper class was particularly keen on this approach, as wars tend to upset their busy social schedules. Onto the scene burst Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, a film that started off looking like a lighthearted comedy of manners, but mischievously transformed into a savage send-up of French society.
France was not amused. Not only did the movie bomb, but an outraged French government banned the film. Then, a year later, after Germany had conquered France, the Nazis banned the film, as did the Vichy government. (If you've managed to piss off that many disparate governments, you've must have done something right). The negatives were destroyed during the war, and the movie was presumed lost. But in 1959, enough footage was found that the film was reassembled (Renoir did not participate in the restoration efforts, though he gave them his blessing -- keep that point in mind for later). Since then it has been hailed as a true masterpiece; many have even gone so far as to claim that it's the best film ever made. Take a moment and think about that. Criterion follows up their 2004 DVD release with The Rules of the Game (Blu-ray).
Famed aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) has just landed at an airfield outside of Paris, having set a new record for crossing the Atlantic. Instead of being ebullient, he's distraught -- his lover Christine (Nora Gregor), the woman for whom he made the treacherous flight, isn't waiting to greet him, but is at home with her husband, Robert, Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). When a reporter asks him about his feelings, André lashes out at Christine -- on live radio. That's a serious breach of etiquette; everyone has affairs, and as long as everyone is discreet and the proper forms are, honor is maintained. He is consoled by his friend Octave (Jean Renoir himself), who, when he discovers that Robert is planning a party at his country estate, manages to finagle an invitation for himself and his friend. André is convinced that he will be able to convince Christine to leave Robert and marry him, but he's about to enter a world far more treacherous than that of solo flight: the world of High Society, with its dinners, hunts, and masquerades. Everyone's behavior masks their true feelings and motives, leaving André, who is almost literally wearing his heart on his sleeve, completely out of his element. His airborne bravery will be of no avail, and he will learn the folly of competing when you don't know the rules of the game.
Note: Judge Bill Gibron, in his ruling on the DVD, provides some fine detailed analysis which this court heartedly recommends. Rather than going over the same ground again, this court will limit itself to some more general observations about this film.
In an introduction to the film, Renoir stated that he wanted to make an agreeable little film about a society that he thought was rotten to the core. When the film was made, in 1938-39, Europe had just attempted to appease Hitler with a gift of roses, chocolates, and Czechoslovakia. The upper class patted itself on the back for achieving "peace in our time" and returned to their insular world, willfully convincing themselves that Hitler would be content with what he already had. It's a topic rife with satirical possibilities, and Renoir doesn't hold back.
One of the most striking elements of The Rules of the Game, in fact, is its meticulous construction. Credit for this film goes as much to Renoir the writer as it does to Renoir the director; the movie balances characters and plots so deftly the aristocracy is balanced with serving class, each with their own peccadilloes and rules of conduct. In between stands André who can't quite blend into either world. This structure places all of the characters on equal footing, and keeps focus on the big picture -- the decadent society in which the various characters exist. André stands out partly because he is initially presented as an aviation hero, but one who has few of the characteristics of a hero. What he is, though, is an outsider, belonging neither to the aristocracy or the working class. While he's hardly heroic, he is nonetheless the central figure because of the disruption he brings. It's difficult to appreciate the precision of a Ferrari until it breaks down; when it's working, every piece, every small cog works so smoothly that nothing draws attention to itself, and only the total remains. Similarly, you cannot discern the intricacies of the French social structure, the affairs of the aristocracy and the affairs of the working class humming along in perfect harmony, until André shows up disrupting that meticulous social order. The movie underscores that idea of precision machinery with Robert's fascination with mechanical devices. (For a more visual illustration, think to Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King and its mesmerizing dance sequence in Grand Central Station. For that sequence to work, every single person in the shot had to move perfectly; one small misstep would ruin the entire illusion. André is trying to dance a waltz while everyone else is dancing a minuet.)
The social satire in the script is enhanced by Renoir's direction, which carefully frames each shot, and uses deep focus in such a way that things happening in the background comment on the foreground, and vice-versa. His prowess is nicely presented in of the extras, an analysis of a single thirty-second sequence by Renoir scholar Christopher Falkner. The sequence is replayed some six or seven times; each time Faulkner points out another facet of the frame, whether it's character movement, lighting, framing, or dialogue. It's wonderfully effective in demonstrating the care with which Renoir composed his scenes.
The Mpeg-4 AVC Video is amazing. There are some scenes with some problems, mainly inconsistent black levels, but given the history of the print, it's a minor miracle that the film looks as good as it does. There is only a single French mono audio track (uncompressed), and like the video, it's hardly reference quality, but still impressive given the circumstances. The Blu-ray release brings over all of the extras from the 2004 DVD release, with no additions. The highlight of the extras is the commentary track, written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read by filmmaker Peter Bogdonovich. It is not so much a commentary track as it is a seminar on the movie -- and that's a good thing, as it breaks down the film on multiple levels, giving you a much greater appreciation for Renoir's accomplishment. While having someone simply read the commentary makes it a little dry, recording the track in English is a good idea; the court speaks from experience, as Criterion's DVD of The Last Metro has a commentary in French with English subtitles; there are few surer ways to give yourself a migraine than to try and process a subtitled commentary track over the movie's own subtitles (there are no doubt faster ways to a migraine, but they all involve Uwe Boll, Pauley Shore, Carrot Top, or some combination thereof). Also of note are a number of scene breakdowns and comparisons by Christopher Faulkner, a film scholar specializing in Renoir.
A simple observation: white subtitles on a light background are nearly impossible to read. When white subtitles are superimposed on white text, as in the opening, both become impossible to read. It's frustrating to focus so much attention on the subtitles that you lose track of the on screen action. Particularly for black-and-white films, it would be useful to have an option to give the subtitles a translucent gray background to provide some additional contrast.
One aspect of the film's restoration is particularly intriguing -- the original cut of the film was 94 minutes long; after strong negative reception, Renoir cut the film down to around 82 minutes. However, the "restored" version clocks in at 106 minutes, 12 minutes longer, begging the question of what Renoir's original cut looked like. Some of the extras address the question to an extent, particularly with regard to the ending, but in this day of digital editing, it's odd that no one has tried to reconstruct Renoir's original cut.
In an introduction to the film, Renoir stated that he wanted to make an agreeable little film about a society that he thought was rotten to the core. The Rules of the Game is a masterpiece, both in structure and direction. If you already have the DVD version, there's really no reason to upgrade, though.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Version Comparison
* Scene Breakdown