Jean Renoir's incandescent films have a way of sneaking up on viewers. His oeuvre reflects slowly paced films that manage subtle brilliance and narratives that are always well acted. Renoir's 1939 offering The Rules of the Game, considered his masterpiece and one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever, is precisely this and involves perhaps his most complex set of characters and most scathing critique of bourgeois excess prior to Luis Bunuel. It is a reminder that in regards to French cinema there was a glorious time prior to the New Wave and that Renoir is possibly the greatest French director to date. Furthermore, it is a staple of what makes the Criterion Collection so respectable, their transfer of the film is excellent and I cannot wait to check out the newly released Blu-Ray in the near future.
The Rules of the Game, as noted earlier, follows the exploits and decadence of an upper class French family and friends. It is part comedy and part drama in its approach showing that bourgeois pride is often fatal. One of the film's central characters is a pilot named Andre Jeruix (Roland Toutain) who has recently flown a lengthy record-breaking trip. However, instead of gloating on his achievement he takes his moment in the spotlight to confess his desires for a unnamed woman. Viewers discover this woman to be the aristocrat Christine (Nora Gregor), who is married to one of Andre's close friends Robert (Marcel Dalio). This romance plays the central role to the film; however, it is much more convoluted than this simple love triangle. For example, Andre has his own affair occurring with a maid and spends most of the film attempting to hide his infidelity through the purchasing of elaborate music players. Similarly, other characters pine for Christine's affections, while a variety of other infidelities occur. Tragically, the deceit and hidden advances lead to one character's sudden death as a set of servants incorrectly assume their masters wife to be partaking in an act of cheating. I would make this all much clearer, but to do so would undermine an incredibly well executed narrative. I can only suggest watching the film, particularly the back half of the film, which spirals into an oneiric spectacle of comedic misfortunes.
The Rules of the Game has a rather interesting history. The film is obviously magnificent, yet upon its initial release it was derided as being a slanderous look at upper class Paris. It was so intensely disdained, in fact, that restoration was impossible for quite sometime given that it was believed that the original negative was destroyed sometime during World War II. Speaking from a purely formalist view, the loss of this film would have been tragic because Renoir's use of editing, angles and focus all result in a film the burns off the screen. From an artistic standpoint, it is an offense that people demanded its removal from cinemas. Their are far more controversial films than this and it only shows the tragic obstacles filmmakers face when producing movies. In reference to this film, I want to expressly state the necessity for open narratives in artwork, particularly filmmaking. While there are certainly clear boundaries between the filmmable and the profane, I strongly advocate the necessity for open venues for all film themes. It is a tragedy that Passolini was executed for his controversial film Salo and it is absurd that Harmony Korine still lacks a critical respect given the rather abrasive nature of his film, and I do not want to even go into length about my rage over the editing off Eyes Wide Shut. The rise of internet filmmaking certainly holds promise for more challenging filmmaking and I am sure a complete removal of a film negative will likely never happen again, but one only needs to watch the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated to realize that censorship occurs, even if it is not enacted in such a physical manner. In short, The Rules of the Game is great, and had we not been lucky this work could have been lost forever.
If I have not sold you on the film yet, let me reemphasize its masterful nature. It is not my favorite French film, but I can safely say that it is the French equivalent to Citizen Kane. A perfect gem of a film that should be high on any film scholars must watch list. Go spend your monies at Criterion to get a Blu-Ray copy and feel free to let me know what you think.