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The Criterion Collection presents
The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) (1939)

Octave: She's a society woman, and society women have strict rules.
André: I don't need lectures. I need Christine.

- Jean Renoir, Roland Toutain

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: February 18, 2004

Stars: Marcel Dalio, Nora Grégor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir, Mila Parély, Paulette Dubost, Gaston Modot, Julien Carette
Other Stars: Odette Talazac, Pierre Magnier, Pierre Nay, Richard Francouer, Henri Cartier-Bresson
Director: Jean Renoir

Manufacturer: Criterion Post & Radius 60
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, animal slaughtering, anti-Semitism)
Run Time: 01h:46m:25s
Release Date: January 20, 2004
UPC: 037429180624
Genre: foreign


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A B+B+C A

DVD Review

Ever since the late 1950s, polls of the greatest films of all time have featured Jean Renoir's 1939 picture, La Règle du jeu at or near their heads. Criterion finally gets around to issuing this classic of social satire in its reconstructed 1959 cut. Renoir was fresh off the successes of Grand Illusion (1937) and The Human Beast (1938), and was able to set up his own studio for this picture. Unfortunately, the film was a complete critical and financial disaster on its original release and only in subsequent years has it been recognized for the classic that it is.

Intrepid pilot André Jurieu (Roland Toutain) has set a new record for crossing the Atlantic alone, but at his reception he can only mourn the absence of Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Grégor), his would-be lover. Unfortunately for Jurieu, Christine is already married to the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye, who has a mistress of his own, Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély). The pilot's friend, Octave (director Renoir himself), finagles the two of them an invitation to a weekend at the estate of the Chesnayes, where he can attempt to press his suit. But there are romantic complications below the stairs of the country estate as well: Christine's maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), is married to huntsman Schumacher (Gaston Modot), but is nonetheless romantically pursued by the poacher Marceau (Julian Carette), who has been promoted to being a servant in the household on a whim of the marquis.

The disposable plot is thoroughly bedroom farce straight out of Beaumarchais, but it's tragic farce. Renoir, despite a disclaimer at the opening, clearly means for the upper class seen here to represent the decaying ancien regime about to be swept away by the forces of history, perpetuating themselves only through illusions and delusions. Though I've always heard this referred to as a satire of the bourgeoisie, the marquis and his friends all seem to be of a rather higher class; I don't recall the bourgeous as having country mansions with scores of rooms, but that may just be a difference in definition over a space of 60 years. In any event, the class being satirized here is certainly the same one that would welcome fascism with open arms not only in France, but in Spain, Britain, and America as well. The combination of romantic fantasy with total disregard for anyone but themselves, the wealthy characters are presented as thoroughly deserving of the obliteration that they're bringing upon themselves. However, in a bit of confused politics, the marquis is presented as being Jewish; there's a strong current of anti-Semitism in the picture that distastefully seems to be blaming the Jews for the coming catastrophe.

The film still has the capability of being thoroughly shocking, particularly in the central hunt sequence that serves as a water line for the film. Over a dozen animals and birds are brutally killed onscreen (PETA types, stay far away), in an unintentionally ironic comment on the willingness of the wealthy to sacrifice the lives of others for no particular reason. Surely Renoir's service in The Great War gave him knowledge of the way life was discarded in the trenches; he surely foresaw a similar slaughter in the coming war. The hindsight of history thus puts Renoir's onscreen butchery into uncomfortable company, at least on a superficial level, with such exploitation fare as the sleazy classics Mondo Cane and Faces of Death.

Renoir uses his trademark deep focus to good effect here; there are numerous sequences that flow from one conversation to another in different depths of the field before the camera, allowing a change of topic without a change of shot. The camera is also surprisingly active, with quite a few notable tracking shots that allow the expressions of the cast to comment on the action. Such technique is oddly juxtaposed with amateur theatrics and a slapstick chase straight out of the Three Stooges, giving the picture an absurdist tinge.

Most of the cast, particularly those playing the lower classes, are excellent. Renoir himself is highly entertaining as the iconoclastic Octave (even if he does don a bear suit). The weak spot is the stiff and frankly unappealing Nora Grégor, who didn't even speak French and wasn't an actress at all. But Dubost, Modot, and Carette are quite delightful in their romantic conflict that has deadly consequences.

The title seems to be a matter of some controversy. The extras provide at least four different interpretations of "La Règle du jeu" and its significance. I suspect that Renoir's point may be that there are no rules to this game; the pilot's insistence on playing by the rules eventually leads to tragic consequences, even though he's not really a tragic hero.

Unfortunately, Renoir's picture in its complete form is a lost film. The original ran 94 minutes, and after its disastrous premiere (where furious theater patrons attempted to burn down the building), Renoir cut it down to 81 minutes. The film was restored without Renoir's participation in 1959, which is the version found on the DVD. Unfortunately, this version adds numerous scenes and 12 minutes to Renoir's own original cut, and one scene in the original is seemingly forever lost. A branching version that would allow one to see both the 81-minute cut and what survives of the 94-minute cut for purposes of direct comparison would have been welcome, especially in light of the inauthentic character of this 106-minute cut.

While I'm not entirely convinced that this is one of the greatest films ever made, it's undeniably a classic of high quality, particulary due to its masterful technique.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame picture is rather soft. There's a heavy grain structure here, but it's well rendered and generally not sparkly or otherwise problematic. Shadow detail is very good, though black levels are not very deep. There's mild speckling and a few scratches but no significant frame damage is visible. Flicker is an issue throughout, but that likely is inherent in the original film. When comparing it to the excerpt of a barely-legible print of the 81-minute version, this looks dazzlingly good.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: There's plenty of hiss, crackle and noise here, though it improves in some spots to become hardly noticeable. The infrequent music is tinny and has a dated quality, with a piercing shrillness. Dialogue is generally pretty clear, nonetheless, with none of the weird effects that spoil the audio on Criterion's disc of Le Corbeau, a French film from about the same time period.

Audio Transfer Grade: C

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 29 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Production Notes
4 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Alexander Sosonske
Packaging: Digipak
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:09m:39s

Extra Extras:
  1. Introduction by Jean Renoir
  2. Comparison of versions
  3. Tributes
Extras Review: Criterion appropriately piles on the extras here. Peter Bogdanovich reads a full-length commentary by Renoir scholar Alexander Sosonske. This isn't the best arrangement, since the reading lends it a bit of a monotonous tendency. There's also a bit of obsessive timing of shots that probably works better on the page than it does being read out loud. But overall the commentary is perceptive and gives quite a few thoughtful comments on the picture and Renoir. It becomes a bit rushed and hard to follow towards the end, as if Bogdanovich suddenly realized he had too many pages to read in the last few minutes.

But that's far from all. Chris Faulkner provides a comparison of the various versions, including a clip of the ending of the short version, with excerpts from the shooting script (which belies Renoir's insistence that most of the film was improvised). Faulkner also provides an analysis of several scenes from the picture, giving a mini-commentary.

Disc 2 features a good many documentaries and featurettes. An episode of the French TV series Cinéastes de notres temps focusing on Renoir's making of this film. The 1966 program largely consists of interviews (in subtitled French) with Renoir himself. An extensive BBC documentary (59m:59s) focuses on Renoir's early years and career up through the release of Rules of the Game; the second half of the program will no doubt surface on another disc someday. Faulkner contributes a video essay on the history of the film, and a 1965 television interview with Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand, who did the 1959 reconstruction, gives some insight into their motives and techniques.

Modern interviews with the surviving cast and crew take up nearly 45 minutes more. These include Max Douy, who was assistant to legendary production designer Eugène Lourié; Alain Renoir, who was not only the director's son but the assistant cameraman; and Mila Parély. Lourié and Parély are in subtitled French, while Alain Renoir's interview is in very good English. He has quite a few humorous anecdotes regarding his father and the film, making this one of the most enjoyable extras on these packed discs. A series of text tributes from directors such as Paul Schrader, Alain Resnais, Cameron Crowe, Wim Wenders, and Robert Altman, as well as a slew of film historians and critics is generally dispensable. The thick booklet accompanying the discs has some good background essays and appreciations, but it's set in white type on a silver background making it exceedingly hard to read. I'm not sure why Criterion continually insists on making its booklets hard to read, and I wish they'd knock it off. But that's the only serious criticism that can be levied against this massive package.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

Criterion provides this classic of French cinema with a decent transfer and a huge quantity of extras that are almost all worthwhile.

 


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