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Rules of the Game, The
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by Ryan Arthur

"The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons."
5 stars

Relationships are tricky. But they can also be pretty telling. This is certainly evident in Jean Renoir's The Rules Of The Game, recently released to DVD as part of the Criterion Collection (it's spine #216 for you completists out there): it's the trickiness of the plot - who's loving/in love with/longing for whom - within and outside of social castes that makes it intriguing. It's a comedy, it's a drama, it's a social commentary, it's in French.

The Rules Of The Game opens with André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), an aviator completing a trans-Atlantic flight to France, following in Lindbergh's footsteps. He's greeted by a throng of well-wishers, but he's disappointed that a woman named Christine (Nora Grégor) isn't there. She's the reason he made the journey, he tells a radio reporter. But Christine's listening, and she's a little unsettled that Andre name-dropped her. Christine's husband, a well-to-do marquis named Robert (Marcel Dalio, better known to American audiences as the croupier in Casablanca) is also a little perturbed as well. He's thinking of dropping his own mistress Geneviève (Mila Parély), who, along with Christine, André and a number of others, will be attending La Coliniere, a weekend in the country with a hunting session and ball for the attending aristocrats. There'll be skits and plays and a rabbit and pheasant shoot...and the awkward uncomfortableness of being in the same room as your wife, her possible lover...and your mistress, too! Ah, Drama!

The bourgeoisie isn't just the focus, though: there's virtually the same thing going on among the hired help: Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is Christine's assistant. She's married to Schumacher (Gaston Modot), Robert's gamekeeper at his country château, but she's also being eyed by (and making eyes back at) Marceau (Julien Carette), a poacher who has since been hired by Robert to work with the rest of the help. In between both groups is Octave (Renoir himself), the bridge that is a friend to all and something of a comical figure. None of the performances particularly stand out, though, save for Dalio and Carette.

It's a large cast, and there's really no lead character nor central plot line. The case could be made for Christine and André, though he's barely a part of the middle hour of the film and she's too distant and ineffective as anything more than a plot device that a handful of characters are longing for. You could also say it's focusing on Renoir's Octave, who interacts with everyone - both upper crust and working class - and figures into the film's climax, but it's more about relationships between everyone in the various social classes, and it's not even really about love itself, but the appearance of love. Who's loving - and lusting for - whom, and how it's all starting to fall apart. As long as the characters get something out of it, they won't worry about the consequences. I was immediately reminded of Altman's Gosford Park, which gives a little bit of a nod to Rules in terms of the setup.

Looking through the accompanying notes, I was a little surprised that The Rules Of The Game caused such an outrage upon its initial release in 1939 (it was released in the States - severely edited - in 1950, though a restored version premiered another eleven years later). Audiences in 1939 thought that Renoir's film had, in fact, broken "the rules of the game" with the apparent mocking of the high society bourgeoisie, as well as the breakdown of the class system and behaviors as masters and servants seemed to be taking up with each other, something that just wasn't done...or at least, just wasn't talked about. The premiere audience practically rioted, booing the film and throwing trash at the screen, and even allegedly trying to burn the theater down. They knew it was about them, but it was only later that audiences picked up on it: the film was an indictment of the French people who didn't seem all that willing to realize their impending occupation during World War II, or change because of it.

Still, Renoir's light touch makes for a good film, as the whole thing is beautifully shot with crisp camera moves and edits (the newly struck transfer from Criterion helps immensely). Renoir used "deep focus," allowing both the foreground and background to be perfectly clear, a technique that comes into play in the film's frenzied final half hour as the plot whirls through the hallways and rooms of the château at an almost madcap pace. It starts as a comedy of manners, and peaks as a farce, with characters engaging in chases throughout the château and one of the wimpiest fistfights ever caught on film. The ending is meant to signify what will hopefully become a change in thinking - a change in the "rules," such as they are - but that ultimately doesn't happen.

It took repeated viewings for me to warm to The Rules Of The Game; it's not something you can sit down and watch once to get the full feel of, and the average moviegoer will probably get restless within the first twenty minutes. But most call it one of the best films in the history of the medium, and I'm hard pressed to disagree with that assessment.

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originally posted: 02/14/04 13:44:49
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User Comments

12/29/11 David Hollingsworth A scathing satire of French upper class that become timeless with each viewing 5 stars
6/01/10 User Name Revoir created one of the best thier is; Rules of the Game stands the test of time. 5 stars
4/14/10 futurestar awkward, challenging, disjointed, and brilliant 4 stars
1/26/08 proper amateur film critic outstanding classic cinema movie masterpiece 5 stars
7/31/07 Ami R Amazing..out of the usual but still in form!!!delightful 5 stars
3/30/07 fools♫gold It's all been said, so SEE IT! 5 stars
11/27/06 William Goss Rich French classic for which my appreciation should only grow. 4 stars
6/11/04 T. Maj Gets better with every viewing--DVD is great! 5 stars
2/15/04 Alexia Katz A witty, wry film that richly rewards every effort made to "get it". Great fun, too. 5 stars
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  08-Apr-1950 (NR)
  DVD: 20-Jan-2004



Directed by
  Jean Renoir

Written by
  Carl Koch
  Jean Renoir

  Nora Grégor
  Paulette Dubost
  Mila Parély
  Odette Talazac
  Claire Gérard
  Anne Mayen

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