It is hard to believe that a film considered to be among the greatest of all time was not only ridiculed upon its initial release but also at one time lost for nearly twenty years. But such was the case with Jean Renior’s The Rules of the Game, the negative for which was destroyed in World War II and the film not reconstructed until 1959 at which point it was recognized for the masterpiece that it is. Hit the jump for my review of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.
The Rules of the Game is a social satire about the frivolous, self-indulgent, amoral French bourgeoisie masquerading as a comedy of manners. André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) is a national aviation hero in love with Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Grégor), wife of Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Dalio), who himself is having an affair with Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély). But Christine wants to end matters with André and Robert to end things with Geneviève. André and Christines’s mutual friend Octave (Renoir himself) convinces Robert to invite André to be his guest at a weekend retreat at Robert’s country estate, La Colinière, to which Robert also invites Geneviève. What follows is a farce of epic proportions as they all try to end, rekindle and figure out their various relationships, the true, ugly nature of which eventually come to light. Even the help become caught up in the sexuall hi-jinx, as Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) falls for poacher-turned-shoe-shiner Marceau (Julien Carette). Almost inevitably, the untenable situation ends in murder, as Lisette’s husband Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the sole maritally faithful person in the lot, accidentally kills André in a case of mistaken identity. Robert explains the death away to the other guests as an unfortunate mistake and everyone goes on living as if nothing had ever happened.
Confused? Although quite complicated, the expertly directed film makes complete sense on screen, even if trying to capture only a handful of the inter-workings in a very brief synopsis seems convoluted. Every element, from the story to the composition of each frame, is intricately crafted. In fact, Renoir’s use of deep focus and unusual camera moves was revolutionary at the time, predating Orson Welles’s use of the former in Citizen Kane by two years. Most importantly, his exploration of these morally lacking characters leaves you laughing simultaneous with feeling both disgusted by and sorry for them in regards their foibles, of which there are many.
In terms of picture quality, The Rules of the Game is not the greatest Criterion Collection release that I have watched. Some of the weaknesses are understandable, due to age of the elements and how the film was reconstructed from numerous sources after it was destroyed—inconsistencies are to be expected. But one of the areas in which Criterion usually excels is in the removal of dust, hairs, etc, and The Rules of the Game had one of the most glaring I have seen on one of their discs: an egregious hair at the bottom of the screen for several shots, what would have been in the underscan area of a picture-tube television. Considering that this Blu-Ray is a re-release of a previous Criterion DVD, one might expect that the previous transfer had been used as-is, but the notes say additional cleanup had been performed for the Blu-Ray and yet somehow this hair was missed. I admit, this is being picky, but Criterion has sets its own high expectations amongst consumers.
As for the special features…loaded! An introduction to the film by Renoir himself; interviews with set designer Max Dour, Renoir’s son and actress Mila Parély; an interview with Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand in regards to their reconstruction of the film; selected scene analysis; excerpts from documentaries about Renoir; and, of course, the usual Criterion booklet of essays. All absolutely fascinating material, but perhaps my favorite was the comparison of the film’s different endings that resulted from it being trimmed after its initial negative release and subsequent destruction/reconstruction.
In every regard the Blu-Ray release of The Rules of the Game is a must-view for any cinephile.