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Review - The Rules of the Game (DVD-2005)
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The Rules of the Game (DVD-2004)

Criterion Collection

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski

Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game has been given the ultra-deluxe treatment in a special two-disc DVD set released by the prestigious Criterion Company.

Considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made, The Rules of the Game did not always enjoy such a sterling reputation.

The story concerns an aviator who is in love with the wife of a French aristocrat. The aviator is invited to a weekend hunting party where the amorous escapades of the aristocratic guests are mirrored by the activities of the servants downstairs. The refusal of one of the guests to play by society’s rules sets off a chain of events that ends in tragedy.

Considered to be a scathing critique of corrupt French society, the film has also been called the most complex social criticism ever put on the screen. It tackles the pre WWII French class system with all its complexities and frailties.

When Rules of the Game was released in 1939, it was a disaster. It met with universal derision from both critics and audiences. The director cut the film from 94 minutes to 81 minutes in an attempt to salvage it, but to no avail. Renoir’s perceptive critique of bourgeois society had struck a raw nerve. The film was banned by the French government, and, to add further insult, the negative itself was accidentally destroyed during a bombing raid in World War II.

Two decades later, prints of Renoir’s original 94 minute cut could no longer be found. But through the determined efforts of two individuals who consulted the director and worked under his supervision, elements were located and the film was reconstructed to Renoir’s originally intended 106 minute running time—marking perhaps the first time a director’s cut was longer than his original cut. The film has been hailed as a masterwork ever since.

Rules of the Game does not cater to a Hollywood-type of sensibility. It is a challenging film. It has a unique flavor, an air of detachment and no obvious center. Its marvelously fluid camerawork, editing, overlapping dialogue and deep focus photography are far in advance of other films of the time. Its surface is enigmatic. Is it a comedy of manners, a satire, a farce, a social commentary, a tragedy, a romantic melodrama? It encompasses all of these elements as Renoir deftly weaves the various aspects into a visual poem--a rather arresting visual poem. Few will be unmoved by the hunting sequence, to give just one example of the film’s power.

The Criterion two-disc set arrives with an astonishing array of extras: audio commentaries, version comparisons, video essays on the film and its reconstruction, interviews with cast members and Renoir’s son, tributes from great filmmakers, a booklet of essays, and more--all of it in a most attractive package. The print itself is beautiful and wondrous indeed, especially considering that the original negative no longer exists.

The Criterion Company is dedicated to gathering great works of world cinema and offering them in editions containing the highest technical quality and award-winning supplements. The two-disc set of Rules of the Game is yet another jewel in the Criterion crown.

2005 Dennis Kwiatkowski/ Celluloid Dreams

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