Cineastes rejoice! Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939), one of the greatest movies ever made, is finally available on DVD! And Criterion Collection has produced a two-disc set containing the film that I would say is probably the best DVD version I have seen so far of any classic movie. The picture and sound quality are much better than in previous versions of the film I've seen, the English subtitles for the sparkling French dialogue are improved, and the DVD set comes loaded with hours of interesting and informative bonus materials.
When I try to think which film I rate as the greatest of all time, I always end up with Citizen Kane and The Rules of the Game in a tie for that distinction. I’ve seen very few lists of the top ten greatest movies ever made that don’t contain Renoir’s masterpiece. For example, the film ranks number three in the 2002 Sight & Sound critics' poll (behind Citizen Kane and Vertigo, but ahead of The Godfather).
The Rules of the Game is a subtle film, and I'd characterize it as an exploration of manners, morals, and society. It's set in France in the late 1930s and features eight major characters: five aristocrats and three servants. The story centers around three romantic triangles. One of my favorite lines of dialogue pretty much sums up the characters' prevailing attitude: "Love as it exists in society is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins."
I think the most memorable sequence in the film is the hunt at a country estate, where aristocrats stand behind blinds and are handed loaded guns by servants. Although the purpose of the hunt is supposedly to shoot pheasants to eat, the aristocrats also blaze away at rabbits, which are considered pests. Renoir makes sure we see several grisly examples of rabbits dying. After the hunt, the estate owner throws an elaborate party, which is winding down when one of the guests is shot and rolls over dead, like a rabbit killed during the hunt. But that guest was also regarded as something of a pest, and the estate owner declares his murder to be a “deplorable accident.”
What I like best about The Rules of the Game is Renoir’s profoundly humanistic sensibility. The movie isn’t a simpleminded tale of good versus evil or likable versus unlikable characters. I find myself sympathetic towards all eight major characters, although each has flaws. But as the film shows, it’s human nature for individuals to come into conflict, both with society and with one another. As one character says, “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”
Jean Renoir wrote, directed, and produced The Rules of the Game, and he also gives a memorable performance in the role of Octave, one of the movie’s major characters. The film had a big budget and features lavish sets, charming locations, and splendid costuming by Coco Chanel. The movie’s plot is extraordinarily intricate, and Renoir seamlessly blends farce, satire, and tragedy. I think his deep-focus photography, unerring sense of composition, and fluid visual style are ideally suited to the film’s story.Review Continued on Next Page