DVD Review Of The Rules Of The Game

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/16/08


  French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s 1939 black and white classic, The Rules Of The Game (La Règle Du Jeu), routinely shows up on Top Five lists for best films ever, along with classics like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. But, it’s not in a league with any of that tercet. In fact, while it’s a good film, and a quite enjoyable one, it’s not even close to being a great film. There are two basic reasons why: first is that, despite some kudos given by technical experts, the film is not nearly as visually compelling nor stunning as the Welles film, and its oft-claimed camera innovations and cinematography are not anything that wows a viewer. Of course, there are some interesting moments, and some of the nature photography is first rate, but anyone expecting to see the 1930s equivalent of The Matrix or 2001: A Space Odyssey, will be disappointed. This is, of course, not so much the fault of the film itself as it is the critics and champions who gush over every scene in the film. The second, and more important, reason this film fails to touch greatness is the manifest- its screenplay by Renoir and Carl Koch. While a slight twist, and improvement, on the screwball comedies of the day- by mixing it with the comedy of manners format (adapted from a 19th Century stage entry in that genre: Alfred de Musset’s Les Caprices De Marianne, the film fails to develop a single compelling, sympathetic, or even remotely interesting character. In fact, the film fails to develop characters, period. They are all caricatures, which is not bad, in itself, if the film is solely intended as a satire. After all, is there a single realistic character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb? Unfortunately, The Rules Of The Games clearly tries and succeeds at being more than mere satire, and that little success is why the film’s overall arch to greatness fails.

  Despite the woodenness and insipidity of most of the main characters, the film does give a good (if exaggerated) portrait of Parisian life amongst the bourgeoisie pre-World War Two. In a sense, it’s almost the Parisian equivalent of Woody Allen’s tributes to 1970s New York, Annie Hall or Manhattan. The acting is pretty good, although there are no real standouts, and Nora Gregor’s turn as the putative female lead, Christine de la Chesnaye, the Austrian born social climber, is a drag on the film. Why Renoir insisted on using her, a little known stage actress, is perplexing, since very time she’s onscreen she exudes the charisma of a dead salmon, even if all the male leads bizarrely want her. Those leads are her husband, the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), her friend Octave (Renoir himself), and Octave’s friend, a lovestruck Lindberghian aviator named André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), who has just landed his plane after a record-breaking trans-Atlantic flight. When he learns Christine is not there to greet him, since he’s dedicated the flight to her, he whines to the radio audience, embarrassing not only the mentioned parties, but all in their social circles.

  Christine is listening to the broadcast from her opulent Paris apartment with her maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who is married to Edouard Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the gamesman at the aristocrats’ country estate. She freely talks of her lovers, who include Octave, who sees Christine more as a sister, for she is the daughter of his mentor, and it was he who introduced Christine to Robert. Yet, all involved know of the infidelities of both Christine (with Jurieux and others) and Robert (with countless others, including his current mistress Genevieve). Later, Robert breaks things off with Genevieve (Mila Parély), yet invites her out to his estate, for the weekend, as well as inviting Jurieux, at Octave’s request, to placate Jurieux.

  We then transition the narrative to the estate, where Schumacher is trying to get rid of rabbits. We also meet his nemesis, a local poacher named Marceau (Julien Carette). Schumacher catches him but Robert hires Marceau on as a domestic, which has always been Marceau’s dream. This leads to Marceau’s seduction of Lisette, and the deranged jealousy of Schumacher. After a hunt, in which rabbits and pheasants are killed, the rich coterie of the de la Chesnayes decamps for a ball, where they entertain themselves with games, music, and stage plays. The film does a good job of showing why creativity, in general, may have been higher in the past when entertainment was not so cheap and disposable, and people actually had to entertain each other, rather than rely on radio, tv, film, or the Internet. Jurieux and Robert fight, after Christine begs Jurieux to run away with her, while Schumacher runs through the manse with his gun, trying to kill Marceau for his affair with Lisette. Both men end up getting fired, and Lisette spurns her husband. Meanwhile, Octave and Christine go to the estate’s greenhouse to talk, and Christine now claims she loves Octave, and they kiss. As she is wearing Lisette’s cape and hood, Schumacher and Marceau think Lisette is two-timing both of them with Octave. Octave returns to the manse and Lisette talks him out of running off with Christine, stating he has not the means to please her long term. Octave then sends Jurieux to meet Christine. When he runs to the greenhouse, Schumacher shoots him, thinking it is Octave. Jurieux drops like the rabbits and pheasants earlier in the film. The party guests take it all in stride as Robert explains that Jurieux’s death was an accident when Schumacher mistook him for a poacher. The film ends with an aging dilettante commenting that Robert’s easily seen through lie is an example of class, a dying thing.

  The final act of the film is its strongest, in part because it is the most serious. This is not to say that there are not good moments in the earlier, comic portions of the film, just that there is little special in them- save for a few funny exchanges featuring the oily Octave. However, this film is nowhere near a great film, much less Top Ten material. There simply is not enough heft, intellectual, for that to be so, and the finer aspects of the film are also, simply competent. One wonders had the film not had such a checkered history- with the initial French outrage, had its original 94 minute version not been destroyed in World War Two, had there not been two versions of the film- Renoir’s 81 minute redacted cut and this, The Criterion Collection’s 106 minute ‘restored’ version, from 1959- would there be any of the hubbub about the film. I think not. I also think back to the other Renoir ‘classic; I’ve seen, Grand Illusion, which also has an overblown reputation for a film that is just a good, solid film.

  Yet, to read the criticism of the film’s defenders, one would assume the dialogue was sparkling, not the affected and stereotypical bourgeois reactions that are onscreen. Then there is the melodrama- especially in scenes where Schumacher chases Marceau with a gun. Frankly, this bit of unreality undermines the film’s claim to greatness, because it is at such odds with the hunting scenes and closing moments. It’s as if one tried to plunk 20 minutes of a Marx Brothers film into the middle of a David Lean drama. It would not work. And the fact of the matter is, those 20 minutes of diversion fall far short of the Marx Brothers- for where is the French Groucho?, and the rest of the film cannot compare to the best of David Lean. Is there satire? Sure, but it is not the razor of Strangelove nor is it the frantic Marx Brothers sort.

  There are some nice touches, such as the six of the seven main characters (excepting Octave, who ranges between all of them, both characteristically and really) their other classed counterparts: Christine and Lisette (the sluts); Jurieux and Marceau (the idiots); and Robert and Schumacher (the cuckolds). But, this is all rather heavy-handed, and not for a single scene does any character utter something ‘real,’ i.e.- speak in a real way about a real emotion. This despite Octave’s oft-quotes claim that ‘The awful thing about life is that everybody has their reasons.’ There is the constant wobble between farcical depth and deep bon mots that come from characters who, if the rest of the film’s portrayal of them is correct, should in no way be uttered by them. Thus, in a sense, the film’s appeal to mostly the dilettante elitist set is very explicable: The Rules Of The Game is beloved by the very sorts of people who are too dense to realize it is their density that is being mocked, in the very unsubtle and unsatisfying way it is to people who crave greater depth from their cinema, for we understand it all too well, thus we feel nothing for Renoir’s characters, and intellectually, we see its ending and message telegraphed too easily by so many manifest symbols (the hunt and dead pheasants/the end with Jurieux the aviator shot down). It is the admirers of the film’s claimed greatness who believe it so for the wrong reasons, whereas the film, unadorned and dehagiographized, is merely a good little screwball comedy of manners. In style and tone it has much in common with Ingmar Bergman’s later Smiles Of A Summer Night, save that there is a bit more substance in Renoir’s film, if less style and internal narrative and character coherence. I.e.- it is absurd that, after dodging Schumacher’s bullets, Marceau and he would buddy up to plot the murder of Octave and Christine- whom they believe is Lisette. First, why would Schumacher not want to strangle Marceu for his dalliances with Lisette and costing him his job? And secondly, why would the carefree Marceau want to kill Lisette? Schumacher’s rage is plausible, but Marceau’s? These are the sorts of flaws that Robert Altman’s later Gosford Park did not make.

  The Criterion DVD shows the film in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the package is a two disk set. While some restoration to the images has been done, I’ve seen much crisper restorations by Criterion and other DVD companies. There is no English dubbed track and only black and white subtitles. I’ve said this before, and this film proves it- there is NO reason for black and white films to not have crisp, clear golden or colored subtitles. Literally about 20-25% of the dialogue utterly washes out against the screen’s white images. The viewer has to squint. A VERY poor job by Criterion on that front. Disk One also feature’s Renoir’s 1960s era introduction to the film, some side by side comparison’s of the film’s longer and shorter filmed endings, some rather pointless scene analyses by film historian Christopher Faulkner, whose ideas are never represented by the scenes. If such an idea was to be realized, Criterion should have had both versions of the film included. As is, we have to take Faulkner’s word on the matters he claims, which seem dubious, at best. Then there is former filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich robotically reading the written analysis of the film by film scholar Alexander Sesonske. While the analysis makes little impression intellectually, Bogdanovich’s reading is impassive, uninsightful, and often at odds with the scenes he is describing. Why did they simply not have Bogdanovich emote his own reactions as the film went on, and have a professional actor emote Sesonske’s claims on a separate track? All in all, a mediocre commentary poorly delivered.

  Disk Two has some good features, though. There is 30 minute French tv program, directed by filmmaker and critic Jacques Rivette, featuring Renoir and Marcel Dalio, who played Robert. We also get Part One of a 1993 two part BBC documentary on Renoir, called Omnibus. There’s also a video essay about the film’s production and an interview with Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand, who restored the film in 1959. There are also interviews with set designer Max Douy, Renoir’s son, Alain, and a 1995 interview with actress Mila Parely (Genevieve). There are then written video tributes to Renoir by critics and filmmakers, and an insert booklet.

  While The Rules Of The Game is certainly a film landmark, it is clearly not a great film. Its time has long since passed, on many levels, the least of which is its provincial ideas (note the casual bigotry in the ‘toy Negress’ Robert plays with and the anti-Semitic caricatures the bourgeoisie portray in one of their musical numbers). In a sense, its overrating mirrors that of the novel The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which, despite its flaws, has tireless champions who likewise, identify with the characters to such a degree that they are inoculated to any technical flaws within, much less the fact that they are that book’s targets. To the rest of the audience, however, is left a solid comedy that tries a little too hard to be deep, instead of what it is- entertainment. Thus I repeat, and lament, where is the French Groucho when you need him?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Obsessed With Film website.]


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