Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Rating (out of five): *****
Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (also available for rent on Blu-Ray thanks to a reissue from Criterion) is a five-star a classic that anyone who cares about movies should have seen multiple times by now.
Paul Schrader placed Rules at the top of his Film Comment canon, the film has appeared in every Sight and Sound Greatest Films poll since 1952, and has never dropped below #3 on theyshootpictures.com’s cinephile aggregate list.
Renoir’s film has long since cemented its reputation, belonging in the company of such hallowed untouchables as Citizen Kane (also on Blu-Ray), Vertigo, the Godfather films (Blu-Ray), and Sunrise. If you haven’t seen it by now, shame on you. So – pedantic brow-beating aside – what’s the fuss all about?
Writing a review of Rules of the Game in 2011 seems about as necessary and relevant as telling someone who likes rock music that they should check out this little band called the Beatles. However, many canonical works soon become dusty relics, immovable from the stodgy shelves where they nobly become symbols rather than living, breathing creations. Rules' greatness lies in its vitality.
My own experience with Rules began with Criterion’s release of the film back in 2004. My approach was purely utilitarian: the film represented an item on a list that needed to be scratched off so that I could move on to The Earrings of Madame de… or whatever was next. Rules was watched, mission accomplished.
Like any good film, though, Rules nagged at me. In the materials accompanying the Criterion disk, a lot of the film’s more famous appreciators weigh in, chief among them Francois Truffaut. Truffaut – who called Rules of the Game “the credo of film lovers” – famously remarked, “For an instant, we think to ourselves, ‘I’ll come back tomorrow and see if it all turns out the same way.’” And that gets close to the feeling that I have about Rules. There’s a unique breadth to its characters, story, and sense of place.
Renoir stages all of his film amidst the idle rich and the people who tend to their needs, an atmosphere at once claustrophobic and rife with all the possibility money can buy. The characters have nothing they have to do except pursue their hobbies, chiefly among these is the hobby of falling in and out of love.
The plot involves a tangle of relationships, all running at cross purposes: Christine (Nora Gregor) loves dashing pilot Andre (Roland Toutain), but is married to the Marquis de La Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), who is having an affair with Genevieve (Mila Parely). Attending to Christine is her faithful servant, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who is married to the Marquis’s groundskeeper, Schumacher (Gaston Modot) but enjoys having affairs with her male co-workers, especially Schumacher’s arch enemy, Marceau (Julien Carette). Connecting all of the above is Octave (portrayed, almost by necessity, by Renoir himself), Christine’s loyal lifelong friend who is probably in love with her, too.
Renoir spends the beginning of the film winding up the characters like kamikaze automatons, establishing their opposing desires and setting them on a course that can only end in multiple broken hearts (and – SPOILER ALERT! – select white text to read - one murder). After a lengthy Parisian prologue, the film focuses on an outing to La Colinière, the country chateau belonging to the Marquis and Christine. Renoir (who wrote the film with Carl Koch) uses the classic containment scenario to corner his star-crossed lovers. The unfaithful bourgeoisie are forced to lay bare their secret desires.
Underlying all the amour fou is the obvious upstairs/downstairs class dynamic between the Marquis’ people and their help. Renoir (who came from great wealth) doesn’t resort to clichés of either the noble servant or the piggish rich. Instead, the film turns a keen eye on human behavior, especially the titular social rules that are transgressed and rewritten throughout the film.
"I wanted to depict a class," Renoir said about the film. The class was one that Renoir himself belonged to, a point that nicely complicates Rules of the Game. In setting out to criticize his pedigree, Renoir can’t help but also create an atmosphere of nostalgia.
It’s the nostalgia, I think, that’s most infectious. Even those of us who didn’t come up among the well-heeled can feel it. The film was booed at its French premiere and perhaps it’s because there hadn’t been enough time elapsed for the siècle that Renoir was depicting to finally fin. Or maybe the film was too close for comfort for the Parisian audience.
"The awful thing about life is this,” Octave states in the film’s famous thesis statement, “everyone has their reasons." Whatever your reasons for not having seen Rules of the Game (or not having rewatched it), the newly minted Criterion Blu-Ray should be enough to set misgivings aside and enter into Renoir’s world of privilege. The transfer is beautiful and draws out the very subtle technical wizardry and nuanced performances. The disc is bloated with extras: deleted scenes, appreciations, a documentary on Renoir, and an extremely informative commentary read by Peter Bogdonovich.
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