Release Date(s)1939 (June 6, 2023)
Studio(s)Gaumont (The Criterion Collection – Spine #216)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A+
The Rules of the Game (aka La règle du jeu) is Jean Renoir’s masterful examination of the grand illusion of social norms and the hypocrisy inherent in the conflict between the classes. It’s a lighthearted comedy that exposes the rot at the heart of bourgeois morality. Renoir sets the stage by opening the film with a quotation from Act IV, Scene X of the 1778 play Le Mariage de Figaro by Pierre Beaumarchais:
“Sensitive hearts, faithful hearts,
Who shun love wither it does range,
Cease to be so bitter.
Is it a crime to change?
If Cupid was given wings,
Was it not to flitter?”
Cupid’s capricious whims range far and wide in The Rules of the Game, straining at the boundaries of so-called polite society and pushing them to the breaking point. His arrows find numerous targets, disrupting the social order by entangling all of the classes together in a game of love and infidelity. Robert (Marcel Dalio) is married to Christine (Nora Gregor), although he’s been having an affair with Geneviève (Mila Parély). Christine has been tempted by a dalliance with the aviator André (Roland Toutain), who disrupts everything by openly declaring his love for her on a radio program. Christine has also had a long flirtation with their mutual friend Octave, who has himself had an affectionate fling with Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost). Lisette, meanwhile, finds herself tempted by new employee Marceau (Julien Carette)—much to the consternation of her husband, the groundskeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot). Despite the fact that Robert feels like he’s been cuckolded by Christine (and he’s hardly and innocent in that regard), he invites everyone to a weekend outing at his country estate La Colinière, where the game quickly begins to spiral out of control.
The Rules of the Game is social satire as bedroom farce, but the real farce is the belief that there are any rules at all. These games of love and infidelity remain nominally acceptable as long as everyone knows their place, but those distinctions are purely arbitrary. It’s house rules where for once the odds are not actually stacked in favor of the house, since superficial social norms aren’t sufficient to keep the inevitable chaos from romantic entanglements at bay. Robert may be bothered by Christine’s relationship with André, but his real issue is that André has breached the rules by making the affair public. Octave tries to keep the peace by asking Robert to bend the rules and invite André to the gathering, and Robert obliges as a way to try to reassert social order and restore everyone to their proper places. Acting disreputably is still considered respectable as long as it stays within certain boundaries.
Of course, Octave has already blurred those lines by wooing Lisette. The masters and mistresses in The Rules of the Game enjoy watching the games of love and infidelity between their servants, as long as the servants remember the all-important rules of the game between the classes. Christine and Lisette do needle each other about their mutual infidelities, but they still understand each other, at least as long as everyone obeys the social order. (Octave occupies a bit of a grey area, because while he’s not a servant, he’s completely penniless). Even Marceau and Schumacher are finally able to commiserate together, as those who have been cheated on can still find common ground with their victimizers once they’ve both found themselves as complete social outcasts.
Ironies like that abound in The Rules of the Game. The masters think that they’re in a position to judge the behavior of their servants, while remaining completely oblivious to the fact that their own behavior is hardly beyond reproach. At one point, an armed Schumacher is still chasing Marceau around La Colinière, and when his gun goes off accidentally, Geneviève ends up in complete hysterics. As Robert and André try to carry the screaming woman away, Robert shouts to his head servant, "Corneille, put an end to this farce!" Corneille’s baffled response is the only one possible:
“Which one, your lordship?”
The bourgeois rules of the game may give them the illusion of respectability to their practitioners, but to the working class, there’s no difference. Farce is farce, regardless of social standing. The chaos in The Rules of the Game results from the fact that everyone has taken things a bit too far, bending the rules just enough that the whole system threatens to collapse. It takes a tragedy toward the end of the film for that social order to finally reassert itself. Everyone returns to their proper places, and the game resets. The real tragedy of The Rules of the Game isn’t who lives or dies, but rather that the system is resilient enough to survive the shenanigans. Even the German invasion of France the following year wasn’t quite enough to break it for good. That’s one reason why Renoir’s masterpiece hasn’t lost its potency no matter how much time has passed since it was first released.
The Rules of the Game has been universally acclaimed for many decades now, placing in the top ten on every Sight and Sound critic’s poll from 1952 through 2012 (it finally dropped to #13 in 2022). Yet the path to reach that kind of success was particularly rocky, and the fascinating thing is that the version of the film that we have today isn’t a director’s cut in any sense of the term. Renoir’s initial cut ran 113 minutes, although distributor Gaumont asked him to trim it for the Paris premiere in July of 1939. While there’s some debate regarding the exact length of that version, many sources claim it was 94 minutes. Regardless, the film received a hostile reaction from critics as well as audiences, so Renoir cut it down again to 81 minutes, and that was only version available for the next two decades. The original negatives were destroyed during Allied bombing in 1942, but in 1959, the recently formed Les Société des Grands Films Classiques undertook a reconstruction using the best available elements. Renoir wasn’t directly involved with the process, although he did approve the final result.
This new 106-minute version was dedicated to Cahiers du Cinéma critic André Bazin, who had long championed the film—although sadly, he died in late 1958 and never had a chance to see it. Interestingly enough, that also means that the critics who participated in the inaugural 1952 Sight and Sound poll were basing their opinions of the film on the shortest 81-minute version, while most later critics were responding to the 106-minute reconstruction. Audiences and critics in 1939 may not have been impressed, but the fact that The Rules of the Game has been hailed as a masterpiece ever since then, regardless of its running time, is a testament to the power of what Renoir achieved. His stinging social satire shines through at any length, and in any era.
Cinematographer John Bachelet shot The Rules of the Game on 35 mm film using spherical Kinoptik lenses, framed at the Academy Aperture of 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. With the negative long gone, this 2021 4K digital restoration was based on a composite nitrate dupe negative that used the 1959 photochemical reconstruction as a reference. (The previous Blu-ray master had utilized a fine-grain master positive instead.) Hiventy performed the restoration work in France, under the aegis of la Cinémathèque française, Les Grands Films Classiques, The Criterion Collection, la Cinémathèque suisse, and CHANEL. No High Dynamic Range grade has been applied to this new 4K master, at least for Criterion’s version.
The results are a clear improvement over Criterion’s 2011 Blu-ray, although most of those improvements are due to the nature of the restoration work that was performed, rather than any inherent advantages of the higher resolution format. There’s significantly less damage on display—the old master was riddled with scratches and density fluctuations throughout, but most of those are now cleaned up. There’s still a touch of instability during the opening credits, some occasional density fluctuations, and a few remaining light scratches such as the one that bisects the frame during the beginning of the hunting sequence. There are also a handful stray hairs and other small blemishes at the edges of the frame, but those are infrequent. All of those defects are minor and don’t detract from the quality of this presentation. Given the duplicate nature of the elements that had to be used for the restoration, there’s definitely not 4K worth of detail to be had here, but the grain is reproduced well and there are no noteworthy encoding artifacts. The grayscale is pure, and the contrast range is strong during the well-lit scenes. The contrast range falters a bit during some of the darker scenes, with elevated black levels, but that’s just the way that they had to be shot with the stocks and lenses that were available at the time. While it’s certainly possible that an HDR grade could have strengthened the contrast range a bit, it really wasn’t necessary in this case.
Audio is offered in French 2.0 mono LPCM, with removable English subtitles. Audio restoration work was performed by L.E. Diapason using the nitrate optical soundtrack and the negative from the 1959 restoration. There’s some distortion still audible in the score that was arranged by Roger Desormière (based on works by Mozart), but otherwise everything sounds clean, with little remaining noise, pops, or clicks. The dialogue is still a bit muffled in a few shots, but it’s not clear if that’s due to issues with the sound elements, or else just the nature of the original mix.
Criterion’s 4K Ultra HD release of The Rules of the Game is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film—note that this is the same disc that they released previously in 2011, not a remastered version. It also includes a 50-page booklet featuring essays by Alexander Sesonske, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Bertrand Tavernier; excerpts from Renoir’s autobiography and his scenario for the film; and an excerpt from a letter that François Truffaut wrote to Renoir. All that, plus tributes from Paul Schrader, Alan Resnais, Amy Taubin, Lucy Swante, Robin Wood, Noah Baumbach, Kent Jones, Kenneth Bowser, Wim Wenders, J. Hoberman, Peter Cowie, Cameron Crowe, and Robert Altman. (Let’s just say that Altman cuts to the chase more efficiently than any of the rest of them.) It’s a reconfigured version of the booklet that Criterion included with their 2011 release. The following extras are included, and while they’re all in HD, they appear to have been upscaled from SD:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich
- Renoir Introduction (6:31)
- Playing by Different Rules (13:06)
- Short Version Ending (8:32)
- Scene Analyses:
- Public and Private (5:30)
- Corridor (2:41)
- Jean Renoir, le patron (31:13)
- Jean Renoir (60:01)
- Production History:
- Chris Faulkner (8:18)
- Oliver Curchod (27:39)
- Gaborit and Durand (10:04)
- Max Douy (9:04)
- Mila Parely (16:16)
- Alain Renoir (18:18)
The commentary was originally recorded for Criterion’s 1989, CAV LaserDisc release of The Rules of the Game, and it features Peter Bogdanovich reading an essay written by Alexandre Sesonske, author of Jean Renoir: The French Films 1924-1939. It’s as much of a performance piece as a commentary track, with Bogdanovich dramatizing Sesonske’s analysis of the film. It provides a thematic deconstruction of the film, breaking down each scene in order, along with some of the historical context. Sesonske notes that Renoir said that none of the characters in The Rules of the Game were worth saving, but that’s a condemnation of the society in which they live, not the people themselves. In the end, Renoir closes the film not by revealing the truth of the heart, but instead by denying the truth that has been revealed.
The Renoir Introduction features the director introducing the 1959 restoration of The Rules of the Game by discussing how much of a failure that it was in 1939, and noting how society is still just as rotten as it was when he made the film. Playing by Different Rules is a visual essay by film historian Chris Faulkner that examines the differences between the endings in the cut down 81-minute version of the film and the extended 106-minute restoration. It also provides the option to watch the ending of the short version in its entirety. (Since Renoir’s original 94-minute cut no longer exists, it’s the only comparison that can be done.) The Scene Analyses are actually mini-commentary tracks recorded by Faulkner for two different scenes in The Rules of the Game: the opening sequence at the airfield, and a later moment demonstrating Renoir’s use of deep-focus cinematography.
The next two extras are television specials about Renoir. Jean Renoir, le patron is the second of three episodes that Jacques Rivette produces for the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps in 1967. This episode, titled La règle et l’exception, focuses on The Rules of the Game, and it offers a series of conversations between Renoir, Rivette, and producer André S. Labarthe. Jean Renoir is the first half of a two-part documentary that David Thompson produced for the BBC in 1995. Titled From La Belle Époque to World War II, it examines Renoir’s upbringing through his early years in film. It’s filled with archival footage of the director as well as interviews with the likes of Bogdanovich, Sesonske, Bernardo Bertolucci, Claude Chabrol, Bertrand Tavernier, August Renoir, and many more.
The Production History is a collection of three different interviews and visual essays that cover The Rules of the Game from birth to death and eventual rebirth. While the commentary is more focused on a dramatic and thematic analysis of the film, these pieces comprise the real making-of section of the extras. Chris Faulkner gives a brief history of the production, and then traces its editorial history from the disastrous Paris premiere to the loss of the original negatives and the film’s reconstruction in 1959. Oliver Curchod provides an extended look at the same history, offering a few more details along the way. He notes that there’s a “potluck” aspect to The Rules of the Game: you get out of it what you put into it. The interview with Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand focuses on the reconstruction work that they performed in 1959.
Finally, there are three more interviews with participants in the making of The Rules of the Game: assistant production designer Max Douy, actor Mila Parély, and assistant cameraperson Alain Renoir. Douy describes the design and shooting of some of the sets in the film, and also explains how he stayed behind in France while Renoir and production designer Eugène Lourié fled the country to avoid the Nazis. Parély’s interview is edited down from Jacques Motte’s 1995 documentary about the making of the film, Histoires d’un tournage en Sologne, and she offers her own perspectives on working with Renoir. Of course, Alain Renoir had a perspective all his own since he was Jean Renoir’s son. He first made an appearance in his father’s debut feature Whirlpool of Fate (aka La fille de l’eau) at the age of 3, eventually served as assistant cameraperson on both La Bête Humaine and The Rules of the Game, and then left the business to become a professor of English literature at the University of California, Berkley. He talks about his father with affection and wit, and this is arguably the most entertaining interview of the lot.
There aren’t any new extras to be had here, especially since the Blu-ray is just a repressing of Criterion’s 2011 disc, but there really isn’t any need. It’s a great slate of extras as is, and the video quality is a noticeable improvement over the previous release. Whether or not a remastered Blu-ray would look much different than 4K is a fair question, but as it stands, this is a clear upgrade. The Region B Blu-ray from the BFI in the U.K. does utilize the 2021 restoration and offers its own slate of extras, but I don’t have that version to compare to this one. Regardless, this is a great disc and a worthy addition to any film library.
- Stephen Bjork