Criterion // 1939 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // February 9th, 2004
"The awful thing about life is that everybody has their
We are a society that loves rules. Whenever life presents us problems or quandaries that test the very bounds of our understanding, we turn to our elected officials in their legislative capacity to draw our drawers out of dilemma's fire. From speeding laws to moral regulations, we seem happiest when our world is ordered and predetermined. And once we get it, we demand it at all levels, from global to national to regional. We breathe easier when our communities and neighborhoods conform to clear and concise guidelines. Deed restrictions, variance controls, and zoning ordinances keep houses and personal interaction from getting out of control. But not every statutory system functions in a human being's best interest. Indeed, cliques and cabals spring up and create their own behavioral benchmarks, codes of conduct simultaneously acting inclusive and exclusive. Membership requires a loss of identity, or even one's soul, since belonging means a sacrifice of self in order to conform to the mannerisms of the majority. In Jean Renoir's magnificent, near morbid class structure comedy The Rules of the Game, we learn that the most insular of communities, the supposedly noble aristocracy, is filled with liars, cheats, and unabashed adulterers. These people play by a set of principles that the lower echelon eschews as decadent and immoral. For the folks gathering at the Château of the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye for a weekend of hunting and humoresque, propriety is everything and nothing. The tenants of the lower classes do not apply. They have their own sordid set of parameters to validate their vileness.
When famous aviator Andre Jurieux lands in France after a transatlantic flight, he couldn't be more depressed. The woman who inspired his journey (and whom he secretly loves) fails to greet him at the landing strip. The mystery lady is Christine de la Chesnaye, wife of the Marquis Robert. Jurieux's best friend, the jobless gadfly Octave is also an old acquaintance of hers, having studied music with her and her father in Austria. Jurieux is desperate to meet with Christine again, so Octave arranges an invitation to the couple's country château for a weekend hunting party. There are several people arriving bent on partaking of the host's hospitality, including Genevieve, Robert's mistress.
At the country château, we meet Schumacher, the groundskeeper. He is married to Christine's personal maid, Lisette. He wants his wife to move to the country with him, but Lisette is so caught up in the life of an almost-aristocrat that she rejects him. Schumacher also discovers a poacher on the property, a sly thief named Marceau. For some reason, the Marquis takes pity on him and he is made a servant in the household. When Octave and Andre arrive for the celebration, there is an awkward moment between the pilot and the hostess. But Christine clears the air, explaining their platonic connection and covering up for Andre's rambling remarks after his flight.
With a successful, bloody hunt behind them, the Marquis decides to throw a masquerade party in Andre's honor. At the same time, he tries to end his relationship with Genevieve. Christine discovers her husband's infidelity and is shaken to the core. Suddenly, she sees the opportunities she had to be unfaithful. Marceau and Lisette begin a none-too-casual flirtation, which has Schumacher seeing red. Misunderstandings, loving devotions, fisticuffs, and gunshots ring out during the festive regalia, and just when all seems calm and collected, a series of unexpected events results in tragedy.
Sometimes, a film is heralded as a classic because of the story it tells. Other times, it is the technical achievements that went into its making that earns it permanent display in history's Hall of Fame. Then there are the movies that transcend their times and strike a chord so universal and important that no one can logically reject their brilliance. So it is no surprise that The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir's heralded 1938 dark comedy of manners is considered a masterpiece of modern cinema. It embodies all three of these precepts and then goes on to write a few commandments all its own in the stone tablets of movie making. Combining the elements of farce with romance, near Shakespeare tragedy with social commentary, Renoir introduces us to the near-fall of western civilization (the pre-WWII decadence of Continental Europe) as a weekend in the country for France's philistine upper class. Filled with foreboding about the upcoming upheaval in the world (the calm atmosphere of the country manor is occasionally startled by the blasts of random gunfire from surrounding "hunters") and laced with a lyrical sense of social slander, this is a movie that makes its case for timelessness from its first frames. As the female radio reporter moves along the crowd to catch a glimpse of the famed transoceanic flyer, Andre Jurieux, the stage is set for heroes to fall, lovers to quarrel, and stigmas to be solidified.
As a film, The Rules of the Game is simultaneously old fashioned, relying on the tried and true comedy of manners and farce formats to formalize its approach, while also feeling novel and groundbreaking in its use of camera and style. Renoir has been championed for his employment of a free, unobtrusive camera as a means of exposing the human qualities of his characters while also commenting on unseen undercurrents occurring around them. In many ways, Renoir's lens is like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, a neutral bystander looking in on the lifestyles of the rich, spoiled, and infamous as they swap bon mots and bedrooms for the sake of civility. But there is more to Renoir's work here than revolving door love affairs, excellent compositions, and artistic editing. His intention is to mesh the classic confusion of a multi-character bedroom farce with the forces of darkness both inside and outside France to illuminate the human condition. His use of deep focus, inventive framing, shadows, and light recalls the work of Welles in Citizen Kane while his unconventional approach to such classical material indicates a refreshing revamp to the language of film. Between its exquisitely crafted, interlocking narrative, the interchangeable use of real and staged locations, a complete and total understanding of the power of mise-en-scene, and the incendiary depth it discovers even in the simplest moments, it is a film that resonates with a potency that only increases over several viewings.
To fully appreciate The Rules of the Game, one has to understand the circumstances that brought it to the screen. This was a movie that came as a direct response to Renoir's view of popular entertainment and the fate of his nation. Hitler was already beating around the bushes of global overthrow, and countries around Europe were eager to avoid World War (the previous one just two decades in the past) via selling their (and others') sovereign soul. Inspired by farce, Renoir infused his film with the notions of loss of place and power, highlighting his desire to show just how much of this cowardly co-conspiracy to appease the enemy was born out of the comfort of wealth and position. Masquerading his message as a typical tale of lovers spurned and yearned, he fashioned a vitriolic denouncement of his countrymen, people whom he saw as being more capable of lying or hiding than fighting. That the Nazis confiscated and banned this film once the occupation was complete is not surprising. What is startling is how clear Renoir's clairvoyance really was. (SPOILER AHEAD) Schumacher, the sole character resembling the French common man in the film ends up killing the media hero of the moment. The death of Andre Jurieux at the end of the film marks the moment when Renoir recognizes his nation's possible fate and gives his characters a chance to show their true colors, to come out of their shell of snobbery and actually respond to the death of their hero like human beings. Unfortunately, all the privileged do is pass judgment on the rest of the country and proclaim that because of who he was (a simple man at heart) it was his "fate" to die at the hands of violence. Adding to the insult, the servant class follows the party line, knowing full well which side of the daily bread their butter is basting.
Indeed, The Rules of the Game is a movie about such upstairs/downstairs parallels, about how the upper and lower class mimic each other in manners of the heart (and politics) for the sake of the same strained ends. Renoir purposefully creates two romantic triangles, each with its own outside facilitator to punctuate the tainted trysts. On one side are the rich: Robert; the wife, Christine; his mistress, Genevieve; and the would-be suitor, the famous aviation hero Andre. Together with Octave, a friend of both the lady of the house and her pilot paramour, we have a constantly shifting set of adoration dynamics that hardly ever stop fluctuating and settle down. Downstairs in the domain of the hired help, we have Lisette, private maid to Christine; Schumacher, her groundskeeper husband; and the newly hired valet fraud, Marceau. Assisting this merry ménage is Robert, master of the house. Having taken a strange shine to Marceau, the snobbish gentlemen goes so far as to function as arbiter, advisor, and accessory to the newest staff member's lecherous desires. The lord of the manor's constant interference with the workingman's desire to protect his wife and preserve his marriage is one of the crucial confrontations and allusions in The Rules of the Game. It shows that love for the rich is indeed different. It is not so much about commitment as it revolves around status, station, and one-upmanship. There really is a strategic battle at play between the lusting and the lovelorn at the château. How it resolves itself is at the crux of Renoir's criticism.
The concept of outsiders creeping into the bourgeois existence to infiltrate and violate their closed world also anchors Rules. Like solicitors standing outside a gated community, these pretenders to the throne cavort, entertain, and infuriate with the hope of acceptance and understanding. Christine, the lady of the manor, is Austrian. She is viewed by the French as sham aristocracy, a woman who could never be completely part of their close-knit community. Try as she might, she will always bear the internal mark of her heritage. Among the servant class, Schumacher is also seen as an interloper. He is in charge of the grounds at the château but has no real place or power inside the massive mansion. His job is to keep people, pests, and poachers off the land, acting as nothing more than a human barrier to nature and the natural course of events. His constant rejection, both by his high-minded wife and the rest of the domestics, makes his status as outcast abundantly clear. Octave is another story all together. He is the hulking clown as gadfly, the social sycophant who plays his jester's role of hanger-on to the hilt. A man of no position, no prospects, and no pecuniary value, he is a professional friend and confidant; his sole purpose is to entertain and run interference for his noble patrons, knowing that success in said venture keeps him kept a little while longer. And finally, there is Marceau, the poacher turned butler, a man who used to make his living illegally hunting around the manor but now finds a prey and a pastime of a different, decadent type within the servant's quarters.
How the accepted deal with the uninvited or unapproved makes for compelling, telling complications in The Rules of the Game. Renoir personally believes that the aristocracy is built on a volcano of lies and that the art of deception is one of the most important tenants in that society's system. For the filmmaker, the massive capital kingdoms of the rich are founded on a cracked mortar of deception, fraud, and past oppression of the masses. This is, of course, a very European notion, one coming directly from an ancient history where fortunes were made on the backs of the church, the state, and the persecution of the common man. The revolution in France was based in a struggle between poverty and privilege, and Renoir hints that if the Nazis hadn't come along and shaken things up, another civil uprising was in the works. But The Rules of the Game also takes dishonesty to the battlefield of love. It argues that insincerity and fabrication are necessary to win the day, or at least avoid public embarrassment. No one in this cavalcade of class cretins is honest about their feelings. Wives are maintained as expertly as bank accounts. Mistresses have their place alongside a country estate and a villa by the sea. And servants are kept to help maintain sleeping and sex arrangements more than the household. The sad part about the people populating the Le Cerciele is that none of them are really very good at maintaining their deceit. Everyone knows everyone else's business, and the art of keeping it quiet is what he or she really practices best. Their true emotions, while seemingly hidden, always seem to spill out and onto everyone's social calendar.
As the core theme of The Rules of the Game, love becomes the human "diversion" referenced in the title. Romance and regulation go hand and hand in this movie, a domain where manners control the moments of passion and, yes, lies facilitate the winning of hearts. The notion of connecting on a level other than through social standing makes up the main challenge for the people playing in the Marquise's château. For them, strange or strained bedfellows are more fun than no bedfellows at all, since the excitement is all in the conquest. But there are two characters in Rules that actually experience love, either as a practical matter or in the ephemera. Schumacher is deeply devoted and attached to his wife, so much so that when he discovers her 'almost' cheating, he stumbles into a blind rage. But in the quieter moments of the movie, he unleashes his breaking heart onto his sleeve, only to have his lost-among-the-aristocracy wife treat it with the same snide detachment as the wealthy do. Schumacher wants nothing more than his marriage. Lisette wants anything (and everything) but it. Andre is, on the other hand, our other love-lost individual, a man who was willing to risk his life, tame an ocean, and feign heroics because Christine suggested he make an historic flight. When she does not appear at the airfield upon his return, his feelings are so crushed that he laments in a melancholy funk, the entire French population hearing his puppy love longings broadcast over the airwaves. As the film progresses, his longing for this perfect love continually places him in danger: of discovery, of defeat, of death. But like another pie-in-the-sky romantic who decided to fly too close to the sun, Andre is destined to crash and burn like Icarus. His wings of passion paraffin are so naïve and pure that they can't hold up to the scrutiny and the lack of scruples around him.
It could be argued (and indeed, Renoir champions this opinion) that Christine is also an innocent, filled with old-fashioned romantic notions of commitment and ardor. But this would mean that her presence in the proceeding is one of a patsy, a pawn in the games going on around her that she is not ready or willing to participate in. Her husband cares for her but is willing to spread his affections around, like money or influence. She tends to ignore him. Octave makes his advances as overtly as he can without affecting his standing invitation meal ticket into the world of the elite. Yet she seems to treat them as friendly reminders of their past exploits, not a plea for current commitment. In reality there seems to be a calculating undercurrent to Christine. She is an unaccepted Austrian in a country that looks down its nose at foreigners. She will never be a full member of the society that her husband dominates. There is a sense of defeat in her actions and sadness in her station. One has to believe she would do anything to forward her approval (and she does when she confronts the mistress Genevieve with a series of trick questions). So playing the game that everyone else plays is her only option and she appears to do so with skill. It is only at the end, when she is confused by the changing emotional dynamics around her and the true difficulty in cheating one's feelings that she regresses, falling out of the aristocracy's amore match once and for all. That tragedy undermines this moment is the moral of The Rules of the Game. Play outside the boundaries of the social structure controlling the home court and you will lose every time.
For such a philosophically charged film, there is very little obvious politics here. The struggle of nature to put up a fight in light of the blizzard of bullets fired by the hunting party clearly confesses a cutthroat ruthlessness among the rich toward the defenseless. But there is no discussion of government or country. The reason, of course, is obvious. The rich have no state except that of wealth. And as we learn in The Rules of the Game, money does not equal enlightenment or equality, and even those who work for the rich find their lower class concerns tainted by bourgeois ideals. Renoir slams the social elite here for their racist, anti-Semitic feelings. As they were in fascist Germany, the Jewish class in Rules is considered a blight and a burden. And these feelings even trickle down to the staff, who add their own personal prejudice to the mix. All of this defines Renoir's belief that France at this time was completely rotten to the core, filled with illogical hate and irrational beliefs from the bottom to the top and back again. Politics are important to The Rules of the Game, but they are kept hidden and covert. Naturally none of the racism rears its ugly head at the Marquis, the Hebrew host of the weekend. He is a man of untold power and "class," and one never rejects a potential party thrower or personal beneficiary, if one can avoid it.
The Rules of the Game is such an outstanding film because of the way Renoir artistically and inventively plays out all of the themes and theories to their ultimate, critical, and disastrous conclusion. Mixing pantomime with high drama, etiquette with burlesque, he manages to make something akin to the ultimate movie's movie, a work of such abject completeness and cinematic wholeness that it seems to be missing nothing that represents film. It is gorgeous to look at and listen to. It uses the location, sets, and circumstances to underscore its ideas. The acting is superb, the scripting marvelous, and the sense of story and spectacle without exception. The fact that nearly 70 years later it can still astonish, satisfy, and bewilder its audience means that there is more here than just some archetypal ancient filmmaking techniques. Renoir expanded the pallet of the motion picture, giving directors and camera operators an unlocked, freely moving field of vision with which to play. He set a standard for multi-character exposition, an arena that another modern moviemaker known for overlapping dialogue, the equally evocative Robert Altman, would continuously explore (it's no surprise that 2002 saw him make a Renoir tribute, Gosford Park). The Rules of the Game is the ultimate social commentary, a subtle skewering of a people and pattern of behavior disguised as a typical French farce, a dramatic fantasy. As the critical wake-up call to a sleeping country before the Third Reich swept across most of the Continent, its intelligence, invention, and insight are as powerful today as they were back then.
With The Rules of the Game, Criterion stands head and shoulders above all other DVD companies when it comes to the creation of comprehensive, cheer-worthy packages. Using the premise that "a great movie requires an equally compelling presentation," the classics company exceeds itself here in sheer content and context. What we are provided with is nothing short of a digital primer on Renoir's career, the making of this masterpiece of a film, and how it came to be rediscovered.
Throughout the extras scattered between the two discs of this DVD, you will see a lot of clips from The Rules of the Game. They look worn out, faded, and nearly indecipherable. The film did go through a major restoration (more on that later), but still there were visual defects that destroyed Renoir's images. With this newly struck transfer by Criterion, The Rules of the Game is virtually reborn. The black and white 1.33:1 full screen image is achingly beautiful and about as clean as one can expect from a movie condemned, banned, and destroyed several times over within its existence. The fact that we even have it here to look at is a miracle unto itself. That it looks so sharp and dynamic is the cream in the coffee. Now, this is not the best monochrome print ever unearthed. There are faded sections and a couple of obvious moments of negative/print damage. But if the other examples of Rules are any indication of the quality of material that they had to work with, Criterion are geniuses. This is the best this movie has ever looked and it is a truly artistic vision to behold.
Sonically, the tinny hiss and distorted musical cues give away this film's 66-year-old origins. It hard to imagine how Criterion could have improved on the soundtrack. Since this is the only existing print of a foreign film, the negative elements gone forever, the aural angst can be excused. Non-French speakers will have to read most of the dialogue anyway, so the less-than-perfect sound may not seem like a problem. But with such low quality audio, we do miss some of the nuances in the actor's voices and it takes our modern ears a few minutes to adjust to the harsh harmonics of old-fashioned, unremastered mono. Given its age and rarity, the situation surrounding the sound of The Rules of the Game can be forgiven. Just be prepared to have your Dolby-designed eardrums desensitized for a while.
Moreover, how this movie looks and plays is almost inconsequential when you begin to peruse the plentiful extras. The bountiful bonus material begins with an introduction by Renoir himself, culled from a 1966 television interview. This is an excellent explanation by the filmmaker of the movie we are about to see, spoiler free and passionate. Renoir relishes talking about The Rules of the Game (other extras bear this out repeatedly) and he really does set us up for what is about to come. In conjunction with Renoir's intro, we get a full-length audio commentary written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. This is really more of a critical analysis of the film than a commentary. By its very nature, a commentary makes observations about the filming and the personalities involved. There is some of that here, but mostly, it's an educated exercise in symbolism deconstruction and subtext discovery. Bogdanovich is subdued and a little hemmed in, not able to divert from the prepared text to offer his own insights. The information here, though, is concise and very well researched. To be fair, this is a great commentary, but if you are looking for humor or anecdotal gossip, this is not the place to find it.
There is other scene specific analysis elsewhere on Disc One. Christopher Faulkner, a film scholar with an expertise in Renoir, offers an interesting comparison of the 1939 version of the film (which Renoir himself cut down to an anemic 81 minutes over the course of the opening weekend!) and the restored 106 minute version (which, to be fair, is not a director's cut or a release restoration, but a brand new beast altogether). Specifically, cuts in the shooting script are highlighted and the truncated version of the ending is screened, side-by-side, with the new version to see how editing and exclusion led to an entirely different tone and effect for the finale. Faulkner also discusses the use of deep focus and the play of dark against light in the film, showing the artistic temperament and experimental nature of Renoir's work. Both examinations are thoughtful, detailed and -- on occasion -- a little snooty. Still, there is no denying the insights offered, and, together with the long form narrative, it provides a great critical analysis of the film.
Disc Two begins with a 30-minute excerpt from a 1966 French television program on Renoir's career. This segment deals specifically with The Rules of the Game, and it is exceptional. Renoir is in rare form, challenging and cajoling his young interviewers, and we even get a sequence at the film's main location, the Château La Ferte Saint-Aubain. There, Renoir is reunited with Marcel Dalio, who played the Marquis Robert. The two reminisce, discuss the main themes of the film, and generally enjoy each other's company. For this one scene alone, the French Television sequence is great. But it is not the only special broadcast material here. Part one of a two-part BBC presentation on Renoir, dealing with his early years up and through The Rules of the Game, is also showcased. This one hour Omnibus show is excellent, detailed, and delightful. The interviews are pointed, not just satisfactory sound bites, and lots of rare Renoir footage is unearthed (even some with him speaking English), which adds to our overall understanding of the man and his craft. Along with a newly created video essay about the movie's making and a fascinating glimpse at the duo (Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand) who restored the film in the late 50s, this DVD is filled with rare TV treats.
The influence and effect of The Rules of the Game is further explored in the final bonus content on the disc. New interviews with set designer Max Douy and Renoir's son, Alain (an assistant cameraman on the film), add technical and personal perspective. Both men champion the filmmaker's way with a camera and a crew, and Alain gives us the anecdotal stories that the more critically based commentary avoid. There is also a 1995 interview with actress Mila Parely (she played Robert's mistress, Genevieve), whose open, emotional recollections on working on the film and with Renoir are truly special. Walking around the grounds of the Château La Ferte Saint-Aubain, she seems magically transported back to the late 30s, and her reactions and responses to questioning truly expose why this film is so well thought of, even 60-some years later. We are then treated to written tributes, dozens of essays, reflections, and expressions of love from the famous and the scholarly. Such luminaries as Truffaut, Wim Wenders, Altman, and even Cameron Crowe illustrate in prose both poetic and perfunctory just how influential to the film industry and themselves this movie was. Combine it with the additional scholarship in the enclosed pamphlet, and this Criterion production comes dangerously close to perfection. Like the movie is serves, this DVD package is a digital masterwork, one for the collectible ages.
We still live in a world where the rich play by different rules than you and me. They are immune to legal prosecution, requiring an entire state's worth of resources to combat their publicists, spin doctors, high-priced mouthpieces, and private investigators. And even then, the illusion of privilege poisons everything around the proceedings until the only way to determine justice is to get out the receipts and add up the totals spent. Such a hands-off approach to the most important institution in the life of the average citizen also makes the wealthy indifferent to the rest of the world. Unless the issue impedes their spending habits, the hoi polloi could care less if people are starving, nations are warring, or bombs are dropping. Their money is a barrier to human interaction, and such a hermetical lifestyle does have its drawbacks. Sure, you have the mansions and the private jets and the new servant class, referred to in PC terms as an "entourage." And just like in The Rules of the Game, love all but becomes a contest between the haves and the wants, the users and the like being used. It's hard to deny the draw of dollars. There is a promise of security and satisfaction that nothing else can possibly replace. But tragedy also seems to be part of the legacy of the well to do. And even though the games lead to heartache or death, most people forego their own soul for a chance. Like Octave says, everyone has their reasons and money is almost always the rationale. And oh how we will violate the rules we so dearly love to get close to it.
The Rules of the Game is a masterpiece. This is single-handedly one of the best DVDs ever put out by Criterion. This case is not even going to be tried. Dismissed!
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* New transfer with restored image and sound and new subtitles
* Introduction by Jean Renoir
* Audio commentary written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read by Peter Bogdanovich
* Version Comparison of two endings with shooting script
* Selected scene audio commentary by Renoir historian Christopher Faulkner
* Excerpts from Jean Renoir le Patron: La Regle et l'Exception (1966), a French television program
* Part one of Jean Renoir, a two part BBC documentary by David Thompson
* A new 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
* 1995 Interview with actress Mila Parely
* Written tributes to the film and Renoir by Francois Truffaut, Paul Schrader, Bertrand Tavernier, Wim Wenders, and others
* Twenty-four page booklet with writings and essays