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Essential Cinema: The Rules of the Game

When the New York Film Festival's salute to 50 Years of Janus Films begins on September 30th with the screening of a pristine 35mm film print of the Jean Renoir classic THE RULES OF THE GAME, it will begin a month-long celebration of 30 cinematic gems that can only be described as "essential cinema".

Renoir's film, set in a French country estate on the eve of World War II, not only is illustrative of its particular time and place, but serves as a kind of coda for the instability and restlessness of our own uncertain times.

The film had an uneasy history before being heralded as a masterpiece of world cinema. Released on the eve of World War II, French audiences in 1939 were initially hostile to the film, uneasy with its tongue-in-cheek sarcasm about the self-absorbed artistocratic gentry and their oafish servants. As film critic Roger Ebert famously observed "the French like to be funny, but they do not like to be made fun of."

The intial reviews were savage, and the film was deemed a disaster for the director of such popular and well received masterpieces as BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING and GRAND ILLUSION. The film was briefly shown in Europe but was pulled after the invasion of Poland and the start of the War in September.

The film was totally banned by the occupying Nazis in 1940, with rumors that it had been one of several French films whose negatives had been destroyed. The film only reached the United States in 1950, but was presented in such a butchered form that critics of the day were baffled by the film's inconsistency of storytelling and style. Versions shown on television in the 1950s were dim and murky, and the film fell completely off the radar.

THE RULES OF THE GAME was then rediscovered in the 1960s, on college campuses and at film clubs, first in France, where a restored version was supervised by Renoir himself, and eventually throughout Europe and North America. The film's mix of humanism and cynicism struck a chord with disaffected French youth during the Algerian War, and with American students during the early years of the Vietnam conflict.

The movie takes the superficial form of a country house farce, at which wives and husbands, lovers and adulterers, masters and servants, sneak down hallways, pop up in each other's bedrooms and pretend that they are all proper representatives of a well-ordered society. One of the film's great admirers is Robert Altman, who struck a similar chord with his GOSFORD PARK. "I learned the rules of the game from THE RULES OF THE GAME", he told journalists when his own multi-character farce was released.

Amidst all the frantic revelry, the film has a undertow of anxiety and social criticism, which was remarkably risky and relevant when it was made. It was clear that Europe was going to war. In France, left-wing Popular Front members like Renoir were clashing with Nazi sympathizers, who were mainly drawn from the French ruling class. By emphasizing aristocrats as silly adulterous twits, who care about nothing beyond their own selfish appetites, the film was sounding a cautious reminder that wars are planned by the elite and fought by the greater population (a resonant message for the Vietnam era and our own troubled times).

Renoir also lampoons the film's servants and workers, representatives of the working class whose slavish imitation of their betters often betray their own interests. One need only observe the phenomenon of factory workers who support Republican millionaires for that relevant subplot to have tremendous currency in contemporary upside-down American politics.

Luckily, the film's restoration can also be appreciated at home with the recent re-release on dvd by the Criterion Collection. Like Criterion's restoration of the French wartime classic THE CHILDREN OF PARADISE (which is also being shown at the New York Film Festival Retrospective Tribute), this is a masterpiece reborn.

After years of shadowy film prints with abrupt cuts, audiences now have the chance to see a beautifully remastered transfer from a pristine 35mm film print, which showcases the film's masterful cinematography, in particular its use of deep focus that allows us to see characters in the foreground of the action, as well as those lurking in the background. This mis-en-scene is critical to the film's message....that there are those that do, and those that watch.

This dvd version also includes some tasty supplemental material, including a short introduction by Renoir, shot later in his life, as he recalls the disasterous opening of the film almost 70 years ago. "At the film's premiere, a man set fire to his newspaper, trying to burn the theater down", Renoir recalled. "Audiences just streamed out, and that was not a good sign."

The Criterion dvd also features a fascinating conversation filmed many years after the fact on the steps of the original chateau where the film was shot, between Renoir and the actor Marcel Dalio (best known to American audiences as the croupier in the classic CASABLANCA). In a wonderful tete-a-tete encounter between the director and his star, the two men try to decide whether the story has a hero. Renoir doubts it. "It is about the world", he finally says.

How many films from that period speak so directly to our own?

Sandy Mandelberger
Executive Editor

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About NewYorkFilmFestival

New York Film Festival
Online Dailies coverage of the 44th NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL September 29 – October 15, 2006

United States

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