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The Rules of the Game: The Criterion Collection

Some movies open to jeers, hisses, and boos. Perhaps even today, some movies are so bad that people will throw food and drinks at the screen. When Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game premiered in Paris in 1939, fistfights erupted and somebody tried to burn down the theater. Sound like a movie-myth? Actually, Renoir was there when it happened, and he was so distressed by the audience's hostility that he cut his original 94-min. version down by 13 minutes. It still wasn't good enough — the class-conscious satire was widely derided by critics and moviegoers alike, and within one month the French government banned it, calling it "demoralizing." France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940 and the Third Reich tried to destroy all existing prints — making it a rare topic of concord between the two governments. After the original negative was destroyed by allied bombing during World War II, it looked as if Rules would become all but lost — and for most, it already was forgotten. But a restoration effort was launched in 1958, utilizing the few prints in existence, in addition to some unscreened material. This version turned out to be 12 minutes longer than the 1939 premiere length, with only one scene missing (a brief comic aside the director has described as inconsequential). In 1959, The Rules of the Game was introduced to a new generation of filmgoers with a special screening at the Venice Film Festival, where it played to a packed theater and was widely praised. Renoir only had one word to describe that event: "Payback."

The Rules of the Game opens as French aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) lands his plane at Paris's famous Le Bourget airfield. He's completed the fastest Atlantic crossing on record, but once he realizes Christine de la Cheyniest (Nora Gregor) is not among the mob of admirers, he's angry and heartbroken. Austrian singer Christine is married to French nobleman Robert de la Cheyniest, but Jurieux's love for her inspired his daring feat, and his friend Octave (director Renoir) realizes he's on the brink of suicide. Octave thus asks Christine to invite Jurieux to her husband's upcoming "Bete d'Coliniere" at their country estate, which she does — despite her husband's concerns. The Marquis, after all, adores his wife, but he's also caught up in a love affair with Geneviève (Mila Parély), which he's hoping to end. Meanwhile, Christine's maidservant Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is content to work for her madame in the La Cheyniest home in Paris, taking various lovers while her husband Schumacher (Gaston Modot) works as the game warden at the country house. Lisette arrives with Christine for the Bete d'Coliniere, but she's indifferent to her husband's demands that they leave their employers. And when local poacher Marceau (Julien Carette) manages to earn a position as a domestic in the La Cheyniest manor, he soon woos Lisette, leading Schumacher to threaten the man's life.

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"The awful thing about life is this," Octave says in The Rules of the Game — "everyone has their reasons." In a script full of memorable epigrams, this one (spoken by the writer/director) is perhaps the most notable. For Renoir, Rules functions as a satire on the haute bourgeoisie, but throughout his multi-character story, he refuses to fully embrace his players, nor will he completely condemn them. The plot, like the banality of everyday life itself, doesn't concern well-meaning people who find themselves in conflict with fierce antagonists or seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but instead is a detached examination of how people often find themselves at odds simply because they are so self-involved. And in Rules, no person's "reasons" are nobler than another's. It is this shortsighted, occasionally manic self-absorption that serves Renoir's jab at the landed upper classes. The director had previously made his mark with Grand Illusion (1938), but where that film concerned honor among men in a World War I prison camp, Rules arrived in the wake of the Munich Pact, which ceded territory to Hitler but ultimately would fail to appease him. Europe's apparent indifference is reflected by Renoir's insular class — one can't imagine any of them surviving a week of trench warfare to defend their nation, but (in the film's most famous sequence) they gladly shoot rabbits and fowl for their own amusement. The Marquis obsessively collects musical instruments and music-boxes, leading one to realize his Austrian wife is simply his most prized songbird. Aviator Jurieux believes he somehow can break the "rules" of this intransigent society by performing a heroic feat that makes him an international celebrity, but that sort of fame has little effect on the revelers at the Bete d'Coliniere, who treat him as either a curiosity or an impediment. And as the story of scheming lovers swings from drawing-room drama to boisterous farce to somber tragedy, Renoir keeps his focus on the sexual hunt. The joyless pursuit of game during the day, followed by the reckless pursuit of romance at night, culminates in one final moment that marks not only the human costs of jealous love, but the cultural costs of moral seclusion among a fading gentry.

Criterion's two-disc DVD release of The Rules of the Game features a good transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a restored print and monaural audio (DD 1.0). The black-and-white image is not perfect, but for a film reconstructed without the original negative, it's very watachable; the French audio does present its challenges, with tones that shade somewhat high, but again, it's reasonably intelligible for French speakers, and the digital English subtitles are legible on the print. Supplements on Disc One include an introduction from Jean Renoir filmed a few years after the 1959 restoration (6 min.), a commentary track from the 1989 Laserdisc release featuring Peter Bogdanovich reading from the work of Renoir scholar Alexander Sesonske, a look at the shooting script, a comparison of the 81-min. and 106-min. versions (12 min.), and an analysis of two scenes. Disc Two includes a 1966 episode from the French television series "Cineastes de notre temps" produced by Jacques Rivette (31 min.), an episode from a 1993 BBC documentary on Renoir (60 min.), a video essay on the film's history by cinema historian Chris Faulkner (8 min.), a 1959 interview with film restorers Jacuqes Durand and Jean Gaborit (10 min.), a collection of retrospective interviews, and textual tributes from several directors and critics. Dual-DVD digipak with semi-transparent plastic slipcase.
—JJB

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