"Rules of the Game"
Jean Renoir and Julien Carette in Renoir's 1939 RULES OF THE GAME.
IN 1959, Jean Renoir - then 65 and nearing the end of a filmmaking career that had begun in the silent era - told an interviewer: "All technical refinements depress me. The perfection of photography, the big screens, the stereo sound, all of it makes possible a servile reproduction of nature; and that reproduction bores me." He added, "The artist's personality interests me more than the copying of an object."
What would he make, I wonder, of the "technical refinement" represented by the DVD, with its almost punishing clarity of image and sound, its compulsive piling on of extras, its manifest unwillingness to let the film - or for that matter, nature - speak for itself? Whether or not Jean Renoir would have approved of the DVD format, it's safe to say that, up to now, the format hasn't embraced him very warmly: the new double-disc Criterion Collection edition of his 1939 masterpiece, "The Rules of the Game," is just the third of his 35 features to appear on DVD. The Criterion release of "Rules of the Game" is the least depressing occasion imaginable for movie lovers, not only because the film is among the greatest of all time - Fran¨ois Truffaut called it "the film of films" - but also because this spiffy DVD proves conclusively that Jean Renoir's art is immune to technical refinements; nothing can make his reproduction of nature look servile.
In fact, the tension between the mechanical and the natural is one of the film's major themes. Renoir intended "The Rules of the Game" to be "a precise description of the bourgeois of our age" - people who, in his view, were trapped in a social mechanism that turned even their deepest passions into empty gestures, the stiff movements of automatons. And the form he uses to dramatize his characters' quandary is, at least apparently, as artificial and as unforgiving as the society itself: the classical farce of Beaumarchais and Marivaux. (He also lifted an idea or two from the Romantic playwright Alfred de Musset.) Renoir sets out in this picture both to pay homage to the beautiful, serenely efficient machinery of 18th-century comedy and to gum up the works a little - or, rather, to demonstrate that in Europe in 1939, these once vital human constructions had become useless, inorganic, vestigial.
He dismantles the old structures gently, though, seeming to caress each small part as he removes it, to turn it over and over in his hands before consigning it to the junkyard of history. The movie's touch is very light, as if to respect the fragility of obsolescent things. "The Rules of the Game" is on its surface nothing more than a story about some rich folks and their servants who have gathered for a long house party at an estate in the French countryside. The host, the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), is for most of the film a genial master of ceremonies, deftly organizing entertainments for his guests: a theatrical revue, a hunt, the unveiling of his latest, most spectacular acquisition for his collection of antique mechanical toys.
He is less successful at stage-managing the love lives of the assembled company, including his own: he has invited his mistress, Genevi¸ve (Mila Parˇly), in order to persuade her of his new resolve to be faithful to his wife, Christine (Nora Grˇgor); he has also invited the famous aviator Andrˇ Jurieu (Roland Toutain), with the intention of squelching the widespread rumor that the flier and Christine are having an affair. They're not, but Jurieu is desperately, disconsolately in love with her, and when the Marquise accidentally discovers the truth about the Marquis and Genevi¸ve, she begins to look at the ardent pilot as a viable alternative to her glib, duplicitous husband. There's a triangle in the making downstairs, too: a twinkly eyed poacher (Julien Carette), newly hired as a domestic, is trying to poach the wife of the stiff-necked Alsatian gamekeeper (Gaston Modot).
All these amorous tensions reach their breaking points simultaneously, on the last night of the party, sending the characters - many of them still in their ridiculous revue costumes - spinning off in every direction through the magnificent rooms and superbly tended gardens of the ch‰teau. Although the action is unmistakably farcical, classicism has by this point been left far behind: the movie has, in a manner so graceful as to seem utterly casual, shown us the panic and desolation that lie beneath the surface of the characters' behavior. As in the final act of any farce, people run around like mad, slamming doors and taking pratfalls, coupling and uncoupling and recoupling. But the farceurs of "The Rules of the Game," Renoir has made us understand, are not going through their paces simply for our amusement. They're all, in their different ways, running for their lives.
And not one of them manages to get away clean. In the end, most of the survivors of the farce, who have assembled outside in the aftermath of what the Marquis calls "a deplorable accident," file back into the ch‰teau; the last shot shows them as shadows on the wall. One character, Octave, an amiable, self-described failure who is the confidant of both Jurieu and Christine, wanders off alone into the night, going nowhere in particular. That character is played by Jean Renoir - who would, as it turned out, himself walk away from the society he portrays in "The Rules of the Game" not long after its Paris premiere. The audience and most of the critics hated the picture, and rather than pretend, as the Marquis's guests do, that nothing significant has happened, Renoir "resolved," he said, "either to give up the cinema or to leave France." Fortunately, he chose the latter course, settling in Hollywood in 1941. He wouldn't make another film in France for 15 years.
The movie almost disappeared, too. In a sense, it had begun to disappear even before its first showing: responding to the anxieties of his distributor, Renoir trimmed 13 minutes from his preferred 107-minute cut, and chopped another 13 minutes out (mostly scenes involving Octave) shortly after that. When the war broke out, "The Rules of the Game" was promptly banned by the government; and then, in 1942, the only complete negative of the film was destroyed in a bombing raid. Finally, in the late 50's, a new distributor found enough elements to put together a 106-minute version of the picture (one brief scene from Renoir's original cut couldn't be located), which is the "Rules of the Game" you see on the Criterion DVD.
"The Rules of the Game" was clearly ahead of its time in 1939, both in its foreshadowing of the end of old European social forms and in the radical fluidity of its cinematic technique: the long takes, the gliding camera movements, the complexly layered, deep-focus compositions, the improvisatory acting style together suggested a new way of telling stories on film - and, of course, demanded of spectators a new way of responding to film. It's not entirely surprising that the first viewers of "The Rules of the Game" reacted with confusion and, in some cases, anger. (According to Renoir, one enraged spectator tried to start a fire in the theater.) The movie almost seems to predict its initial failure: when the Marquis's guests return to the ch‰teau while Octave chooses to stay out in the cold, we might be watching Renoir's audience retreating to the comfort of theatrical convention, refusing the uncertain freedom his cinema has proposed. It's scary out there, as the rabbits and birds know in the panicky seconds before the Marquis and his friends cut them down.
And although this gorgeous, well-thought-out DVD package enables the armchair viewer to watch the film again and again, to cherry-pick scenes for analysis, to hear scholarly commentary, to listen to an older Renoir (and others involved in the movie) reminisce about the production, "The Rules of the Game," improbably, retains even in this mechanical form its stubborn unfamiliarity, its mysterious poise as it contemplates the end of something and the beginning of something else, and its generosity in allowing us to share with its characters the pleasures and the terrors of freedom. And the artist's personality is undiminished. "The Rules of the Game" is still the film of films. Now it's the DVD of DVD's, too.
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