La règle du jeu
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Nora Grégor, Marcel Dalio, Mila Parély, Roland Toutain
screenplay by Jean Renoir and Carl Koch
directed by Jean Renoir
by Jefferson Robbins One political cue most firmly plants Jean Renoir's masterwork in pre-World War II France, and it doesn't come amidst the posturing of the elegant rich at La Colinière country manor. Rather, it's in the kitchen, where the domestic staff breaks bread and gossips about the master of the house, the Marquis Robert De La Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), outed by the help as a "yid" whose family made good with money and a title. The gossipers turn for confirmation to the huntsman who's just materialized on the stairs, and the combination of words is chilling: "Isn't that right, Schumacher?" The italics are mine, and despite the fierce Teutonic consonants of his name, the marquis's game warden (Gaston Modot) is Alsatian. He remains metaphorically sticky, though, since his home state was variously French or German for 200 years, and his dress and cap bespeak armed authority. He's rough and field-hardened, arguably ignorant, and looked down upon by his fellow servants, who see him as a thing apart from their world. Cuckolded and exiled from his wife, the housemaid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), he's also the most prone to physical violence as he seeks to control her and eliminate all rivalry. On the matter of La Chesnaye's Jewishness, Schumacher demurs: "I don't know what you're talking about." But the point is made, the knife already twisted.
That's a specificity. More broadly, what moves The Rules of the Game beyond its setting--what makes it last--is that we've all been to that party. Everything is wonderful and everyone is bubbling along in their assumed roles without gravity or care, and then comes the fracture, the collapse, the ill-timed word or glance. In this case, our proxy is La Chesnaye's expat Austrian wife Christine (Nora Grégor), anxious to rise above jealousy over her husband's affair with smoky Geneviève (Mila Parély). When Geneviève embraces Robert backstage at a masquerade staged for their society friends, an overwhelmed Christine, trying to play the "game" as she understands it, lunges desperately into the arms of a new potential lover. It's that U-turn moment where a celebration goes bad and Apollonian play turns Dionysian. The surface tension of a societal pantomime is broken, and we all fall down.
Renoir's visual grammar--long takes, deep focus, gliding camera movements that bend around doorways and dividers, film editing (by Marthe Huguet) that generates as much tension as the images it splices--would be enough to make his name reverberate, but from today's vantage point, it's harder to appreciate such things. We take them for granted now, to the point that when we encounter some prewar drama with flat staging, static camera, and metronomic cutting, we ridicule it as primitive or adore it ironically. What seizes me, viewing The Rules of the Game for the first time in my life via Criterion's Blu-ray edition, is its story. The script, by Renoir and his Grand Illusion collaborator Carl Koch, is a piece of architecture with no stone mislaid. Bitingly funny to the point of slapstick at times, cynical but heartfelt, all its parts working to reinforce and reflect each other, The Rules of the Game--or at least the film as we've known it since its 1959 restoration, but more on that later--is a relatively simple story that's nonetheless intricate and enveloping.
The "game" is the casual, studied cruelty of high society (by implication, all of society), but it also refers to the hunted animals on La Chesnaye's estate. "I hope the game is good," one domestic mutters before the shooting party, where rabbits and pheasant are slaughtered by gunfire on a shelterless no-man's land, like World War I doughboys. The game is also the hunt itself (supervised by Schumacher) and, later, the stalking of lovers through La Colinière's grand hallways. The uncertain Christine, who flailingly projects her love onto different men through the course of the drama, has her wicked twin in Lisette, a surefooted adulteress who treats Schumacher with all the respect one pays a bath towel. The haughty La Chesnaye's closest confidant turns out to be the poacher Marceau (Julien Carette), like himself an unrepentant chaser of women. The party masquerade on which the drama pivots, where Death cavorts and frustrated amour turns to a series of rages and confrontations, is still just a masquerade. "For Christ's sake!" bellows the well-meaning parasite Octave (Renoir himself) as he blunders about in a bear suit. "Who'll help me out of this skin?"
But shedding a disguise, or refusing to wear one, is the worst mistake one can make in this milieu. If there is one unbending rule to this game (as the singular French title "La règle" implies), it is that one must never stop playing. Hero aviator André Jurieux (Rouland Toutain) has all of France hailing him for a record-setting trans-Atlantic flight, but he cannot accept his applause unless Christine requites his love for her. His courtly ardour can't be concealed or tamped down successfully, and he won't settle for anything extramarital or under the table. So, he's doomed. Octave, a childhood friend of Christine, doffs his own buffoonish guise and sees the hard truth of his own life even while enacting yet another pantomime on La Colinière's front terrace. And when our costumes wind up on the wrong actors, as with the loan of a coat in the obscuring night? The results are fatal. Renoir's metaphors double and reflect each other, just as the domestic help below stairs parallels the social elites. When Marceau asks La Chesnaye for a favour, the word he uses is "service," the same noun applied to describe the house staff: The master is recruited to briefly become a servant. Octave describes Christine as "a dangerous angel," the sort of romantic ideal who drives men to mortal error; a moment later, La Chesnaye calls Octave "a dangerous poet," a purveyor of romantic myths that have the same effect. The Marquis collects clockwork musical devices, and by the time he exhibits his favourite piece--or even before that, when a piano terrifyingly reveals that it can play itself--the characters, too, are locked into their tracks like automata.
As a born bohemian (the son of the revolutionary painter Pierre-Auguste) and a sometime Socialist, Renoir may have found it infuriating that France was still enthralled to a ruling class more than a century after its Revolution. The director builds his construct upon the kind of French social farce practiced by Molière and Alfred de Musset (and, deeper, the commedia dell'arte), with the goal of skewering "a class with money and power but not much sense of responsibility," as he's quoted by late friend and scholar Alexander Sesonske. He's indebted to farcical tropes as old as theatre--those borrowed coats, a spyglass that chances upon a secret rendezvous--that gave him leeway, following the shocked initial reception to his film, to claim it was just a frivolity. Criterion's cover for this edition, by NEW YORKER artist Edward Sorel, seems to embrace this interpretation: beautiful as it is, it captures all the film's frolic and none of its melancholy, as if Sorel's only had the boisterous parts shown to him. The single disc within, however, is well up to the publisher's platinum standards of curation. The Rules of the Game as we know it today was built in a Parisian photolab in 1959, by technicians who set out to restore a definitive cut from disparate elements with no direct input from Renoir. Their 106-minute version, longer than both the 94-minute cut of 1939 and Renoir's post-premiere chop-job that pared the runtime down to 81 minutes, is presented here.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Things get off to a wobbling start: white subtitles lost against white lettering as they translate Renoir's (somewhat defensive) foreword to the 1959 edition. It almost feels like a bad visual joke, like Austin Powers in Goldmember. Once past that hiccup, the 1.33:1, 1080p transfer is clean and clear, digitally polished and sourced directly from the same 1959 negative used for Criterion's 2004 DVD. It's occasionally overwhelmed by its blacks, but hey, it's a black-and-white film set at a black-tux party that takes place mostly at night. Renoir's deep-focus photography, for which he commissioned special lenses, is sharply preserved, although HD shows up some focus-pull failures I suspect are inherent in the original filming. Given its jigsaw provenance, the image has a remarkable cohesion and uniformity of quality, which is a credit both to Criterion and to 1959 restoration artists Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand. All involved have done us a service. The lone French audio track, in monaural (1.0) LPCM with default but optional English subtitles, is flawless in terms of texture as well as cleanliness, with no pops or burrs to overpower dialogue, sound effects, or room dynamics.
Maybe I haven't been paying attention, but it seems pretty rare to hear Peter Bogdanovich read aloud from somebody else's insights into a film. The filmmaker/scholar/raconteur gives a feature-length, screen-specific commentary written by the late Sesonske, filling in gaps that a contemporary audience might have to hurdle (regarding setting, European politics, and so on) and teasing out the themes and mechanisms of Renoir's approach. It's here that Sesonske cites critic Dudley Andrew, who assesses Rules as "the most complex social criticism ever enacted on the screen." Hyperbole? Not by much. He also highlights nuances that would be lost on a non-Francophone, such as the fact that La Chesnaye only addresses two people--Octave and Marceau--with the informal "tu" rather than the more class-bound "vous." This track is ported over from the '04 DVD release, as is Sesonske's print essay "Everyone Has Their Reasons," featured in the Blu-ray's wonderfully packed 40-page booklet. It's as fluent a yakker as we're likely to hear, well-delivered by Bogdanovich, and it sent me running back to read Sesonske's other contributions in Criterion's library. (He additonally wrote worthwhile essays for the imprint's releases of Yojimbo, 8½, and Rashomon, among others.)
Elsewhere among the platter's featurettes (all in 1080i, with some showing the strain of HiDef upconversion more conspicuously than others), author Chris Faulkner looks at the film's two extant incarnations in "Playing By Different Rules" (13 mins.), noting where and when each of Renoir's post-premiere cuts appears to have occurred. He has only the 81-minute and the restored 106-minute versions to reference, as the initial 94-minute cut was lost during World War II, but the comparisons are revelatory. Most of what Renoir lifted involved his character Octave, the blustering le fou of the play, and the elisions--born of misplaced humility after the disastrous Paris premiere?--remove much of his pathos and depth. The "Short Version Ending" (9 mins.) can be played in full from the same submenu, picking up from the point where the camera contemplates a pool of idle frogs; looking deeply cloudy, it's reproduced from elements not restored to the full version's Blu-ray quality. Faulkner surfaces in two more featurettes, "Public and Private" (5 mins.) and "Corridor" (3 mins.), examining the structure of André's film-opening airport arrival and the lensing, staging, and lighting of his hallway confab with La Chesnaye, respectively.
Renoir himself pops up to welcome us to his work in an avuncular introduction to the film, in subtitled French (7 mins.). We'll meet the maestro again by various routes, such as "Jean Renoir" (60 mins.), a 1995 entry in the BBC's "Omnibus" arts-and-culture series by David Thompson. Bogdanovich appears here, speaking for himself this time, alongside the crew-cut Sesonske, Bernardo Bertolucci, actor Norman Lloyd, Renoir's son and assistant cameraman Alain, and a host of others. Among the gossipy bits: When '30's-era Renoir needed money to complete a film, he'd take one of his old man's paintings off the wall and sell it. Jacques Rivette queries Renoir's place in France's directorial pantheon in the 1967 TV program "Jean Renoir: Le Patron" (31 mins.), an episode of the "Cineastes de notre temps" series. This episode, billed in the disc materials as one of three originally aired, deals with the production history and deeper meanings of The Rules of the Game specifically.
Bless Chris Faulkner, he recurs in the first of three video essays (8 mins.) filed under "Production History." His segment presents the abridged story of the picture's troubled genesis, horrid reception, and eventual rehabilitation in the critical mind. Faulkner's French counterpart Olivier Curchod provides an expanded synopsis of the same, running 27 minutes. In the third, from 1965, say hello to Durand and Gaborit themselves (10 mins.), discussing their discovery of The Rules of the Game through the postwar film clubs of Paris. They first showed a poorly-assembled print in their own exhibition, which Gaborit says led Francois Truffaut to excoriate them in Cahiers du Cinema and motivated their project to reassemble a definitive cut. Durand mostly makes me nervous by smoking a pipe while leaning on a tall stack of film canisters. If I have one gripe about these extras, it's that Marthe Huguet's editing is practically unmentioned, save for a few brief notes about how she had to rush to meet the premiere deadline because Renoir's shooting and rewriting schedule ran long. Likely the Durand-Gaborit restoration--or maybe it's the auteur-theory impulse--has overshadowed Huguet, who also cut Grand Illusion and The Crime of Monsieur Lange for Renoir. The picture as we know it now was "edited" twenty years after she locked her last print.
Rounding out the set are talking-heads with production designer Max Douy, the man responsible for all those music boxes and contraptions (10 mins.); actress Mila Parély, interviewed in 1995 and disclosing that the leopard-print Chanel coat she wore for her arrival scene at La Colinière was ruined by being set to dry on a radiator (16 mins.); and Alain Renoir, interviewed in 2003, recalling his upbringing among his father's retinue of artists and technicians (18 mins.). His recollections cast a particular light on The Rules of the Game's hunting scene: "My father never, never, never killed an animal in his life." More treasures are wrapped up in that Sorel-cover booklet, including a segment on the movie from Renoir's autobiography, observations from Truffaut, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Bertrand Tavernier, and paeans to the film's greatness from J. Hoberman and filmmakers like Paul Schrader, Robert Altman, Alain Resnais, and Cameron Crowe. Cameron Crowe? Perhaps it's uncharitable, but I see the director of Elizabethtown as the Jurieux at this particular party. Originally published: January 30, 2012.