Home Video Hovel- The Rules of the Game
Jean Renoir’s 1939 The Rules of the Game tends to land near the top of most reputable lists of the best movies ever made (BP’s listeners managed to ignore it completely in voting for our list, which is criminal; but that’s democracy, I guess). Sight and Sound currently has it ranked at number three, as does They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? In a way, though, knowing the reputation before watching it or other classic films that are highly praised can be a detriment. Not because it sets the bar too high (there’s no such thing as too high a bar when discussing this film) but because the knowledge that it is almost universally beloved may lead one to take it for granted.
Another major film in that camp is, of course, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, which tends to be the one film sure to beat Rules of the Game on such lists. Released only two years later, there are a number of big similarities between it and Renoir’s film in terms of long-lasting cultural importance. The first is the cinematography. Both films employ a deep focus technique that stands in contrast to the other works of the time. This crispness lends the picture an added dimensionality (especially when seen on a Criterion Blu-ray). These movies look like they’re ahead of their time because they are.
The other similarity is that both films are sardonic, occasionally vitriolic depictions of the upper classes of their respective times and places. While Kane focused on one figure (a representation of the rich and powerful William Randolph Hearst), Rules takes as its target a broader sample set. By employing the familiar “rich people spend a weekend at a country estate” trope, Renoir is able to dissect the poisonous relationships within the wealthy elite as well as their insularity from the classes beneath theirs.
That angry satirical approach is what leads to the largest external similarity between Rules and Kane: the initial reception. While the latter was smeared in a campaign led by Hearst himself, Renoir’s film was more widely hated. Unable to stomach the vicious portrayal of its own richest and most powerful citizens, the French government actually banned the film. Censorship like that is, of course, one of the two major ways for a cinematic work to become well-known and sought after. The other is for the film to have been thought lost and then restored to its original form. As luck would have it, that happened as well when the bombs of World War II destroyed the original negative. Finally a confirmed piece of cinephilia due to its life after completion, the movie was restored with Renoir’s help in 1959 and, to no one’s surprise, turned out to be amazing in its own right.
That modern feel I made reference to when discussing the cinematography extends to all other aspects of the film. Its pace, much quicker than we’ve come to expect from the cinema of 1939, makes for a brisk 106 minutes. Meanwhile, the comedy – an aspect that notoriously ages poorly in most regards – is fresh and hilarious here, not to mention sadly relevant given recent discussions of the “1%.”
This evergreen aura is the real reason The Rules of the Game comes in so high on so many lists. It, like all the greatest films, will always remain vital because no matter when it was made, it is pure truth and pure art.
The bountiful special features, which focus on Renoir’s and the film’s places in cinema history, are largely carried over from Criterion’s earlier DVD release with the addition of an interview with film critic Olivier Curchod.