The Rules of the Game, Blu-ray (1939/2011)
Director: Jean Renoir
Cast: Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Jean Renoir
Studio: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection 216 [11/15/11]
Video: 1.33:1 black & white
Audio: French PCM mono
Extras: Renoir’s introduction to the film; Commentary track read by Peter Bogdanovich; Visual comparison of the film’s two endings; Scene analysis by Renoir historian; Excerpts from a French TV program on Renoir; Part 1 of a 1993 BBC documentary on Renoir; Video essay about the history of the film and its 1959 reconstruction; Interview with film critic Olivier Curchod; 1965 French TV discussion about the reconstruction and rerelease of the film; Interviews with the set design, Renoir’s son, and actress Mila Parely; Printed/illustrated booklet with writings by Renoir, Cartier-bresson, Bertrand Tavernier and Francois Truffaut, plus tributes to the film by others.
Length: 106 minutes
Though considered by some film critics as one of the greatest films ever made—the French equivalent of Citizen Kane at least—I believe in seeing it a second time I would only rate it perhaps the best drawing room comedy/drama ever. It is Renoir’s biting critique of corrupt French society of the time, disguised within a comedy, but with plenty of dramatic moments—after all, someone gets killed. Renoir is also in front of his camera, playing a friend of the Marquis who owns the luxurious chateau in the French countryside. Their friends are visiting, partly to celebrate the recent flying achievement of a daring pilot (with which the film opens), who also happens to be in love with the Austrian wife of the Marquis.
Renoir choreographed a variety of characters, with no real central character, and often has them moving around in the frame or speaking simultaneously. Directors such as Robert Altman have acknowledged their debt to Renoir in this area. He presents a number of unpleasant truths about the “rules” of the haut bourgeois. There’s also a sort of Upstairs/Downstairs situation going on with the servants. The premiere of the film in 1939 had such a violent negative response from the audience that it almost equalled the Paris riot at The Rite of Spring premiere. Renoir immediately cut out and cut short many scenes that made the society members look even worse than he had intended. In 1959 they were restored and even some additional footage added, which improved the film. (After making Rules of the Game Renoir wisely got out of France and went to Hollywood.)
As with all of the Criterion black & white classics restorations to Blu-ray, the beautiful depth and detail of the images is appreciated for the first time. Renoir used special fast wide angle lenses to have everyone in focus in his longer shots, and all the actors seem amazingly believable in their roles, even when just in the background. The soundtrack is cleaned up, and Renoir used some French Baroque instrumental music to fit his story—which had been stimulated by the period dramas of Racine, Moliere and others. There are also the interesting sounds of the various mechanical musical and automaton gadgets which the Marquis collects as a hobby. The extras are always extensive with Criterion, and the excerpts from French TV go into great detail with Renoir and others about the film—discussions that would never be seen on American TV then or certainly not now. They probably won’t all retain everyone’s interest all the way thru, but you certainly get an in-depth impression of one of the world’s greatest film directors.
If any recording is essential to the genre, this is it.