It becomes a tricky proposition when it comes to reviewing a
"classic" film. Contemporary audiences have been inured to whatever
innovations the film might have introduced. I've had long conversations
with young people under 30 who don't understand why films like
CITIZEN KANE or THE GODFATHER are as respected as they are. I
can even remember my own initial reaction to some of the classics
when I first encountered them in college, not fully understanding what
all the fuss was about -- at least not until I began to realize that one
has to look at things in historical context. If you can do that, you can
gain a deeper appreciation for these works. Still, because the films
are so well made and contain so many wonderful things from terrific
performances to memorable lines of dialogue to brilliant set pieces,
they can -- and should -- be able to be judged on their own merits.
As I said, it's a tricky business.

One of those aforementioned films I encountered in college was
Jean Renoir's
LA RÈGLE DU JEU/THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939).
The print I saw was muddied and dark, scratchy and jumpy and didn't
really contain the sort of salacious content I had been led to expect.
But, of course, in 1939 when the film was first released, the dalliances
and love affairs depicted were sort of shocking -- at least on public
display. Surprisingly, the movie, one of the most expensive French
films at the time, was a box office flop. Audiences booed or walked
out and the distributor got nervous and trimmed the film from its original   
running time of 90 minutes to 81 minutes. Following the outbreak of
World War II, the film was banned. Renoir left France for the United
States and in 1942 an Allied bombing raid destroyed vaults where
the original negative had been stored. The 81-minute version was
revived periodically over the course of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In the late 1950s, the film was reconstructed by two Frenchmen,
Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand, who consulted with director Jean
Renoir and his editor and incorporated footage never seen before.
The current version that has been hailed as a masterpiece was actually
longer than Renoir's original cut and it was not overseen by the director.
Still, it has been seen and acclaimed throughout the world.

When Renoir was writing his script for the film, he referred to it
as "an exact depiction of the bourgeoisie of our time." He also claimed
that he planned "to show a rich, complex society where - to use an
historic phrase - everyone is dancing on a volcano." He reportedly used
two works of fiction as the basis for his idea: Musset's
LES CAPRICES                  
 DE MARIANNE
(for the jealous husband, faithful wife, her would-be
lover and an interfering acquaintance) and Beaumarchais'
LE MARIAGE
DE FIGARO
, with its servants whose actions mirror their masters.

The on screen result is nothing short of sublime. Aviator André
Jurieu (Roland Toutain) has flown across the Atlantic but he's unhappy
that the woman he loves, Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Grégor), hasn't
come to meet him at the airport. Indeed, that evening Christine and
her husband Robert (Marcel Dalio) are planning an evening out.
Christine, however, is unaware of her husband's infidelity with
Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély). Naturally, they all end up at
Robert's country estate for a weekend party that will include hunting
in both a literal and figurative sense. Playing out in counterpoint to
the "upstairs" romances is a "downstairs" love triangle between
Christine's maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), her husband the
gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot), and the poacher-turned-
servant Marceau (Julien Carette). Floating between upstairs and
downstairs is Octave (Renoir), a portly gent who has known Christine
for years but is not above flirting with Lisette.

There is a hunting sequence that is brutal to watch (with
rabbits seemingly shot for real) and a roundelay of declarations of
love. Guns are drawn and in keeping with Chekhov's dictum, it
does go off with seemingly tragic implications. (The player who
doesn't understand the titular rules is the one who is killed. His
intended returns to her prison, even if it is a gilded cage of sorts.)

THE RULES OF THE GAME is generally ranked among the top
10 of the best films ever made. That it has had a lasting impact
cannot be denied: filmmakers as diverse as Woody Allen, Ingmar
Bergman, Robert Altman and François Truffaut (just to name a
few) have all borrowed liberally from it. It is also the kind of movie
that can be watched multiple times with each viewing revealing
something different, whether it is the deep focus lensing of
director of photography Jean Bachelet or the detailed costumes by
Chanel or the bit players who include the great photographer
Henri Cartier-Bresson as a servant. The digitally restored print showing
in theaters is worth seeing. If it doesn't
come to your town, then
look for it to show up on
IFC in its tribute to Janus Films or
buy or rent the
Criterion Collection DVD. However you see this
masterpiece, you absolutely MUST see this classic.


        Rating:                A
        Running time:       106 mins.
The Rules of the Game (1939)
(La Règle du jeu)
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.