The Rules of the Game (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 11.15.2011)
Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game has had one of the most complicated histories of any famous film. Condemned by French critics and audiences after its 1939 premiere and shortened by thirteen minutes a few days later, the film was finally restored -- with an additional twelve minutes -- in 1959. Since this restoration was hampered by the destruction of the original negative during World War II, The Rules of the Game has never looked quite as good as it should. The Criterion Blu-ray edition is grainy at times, with a few scratches here and there, but Renoir’s use of deep focus has never been so clear. As the overwhelming number of extras on this disc explain, Renoir wanted to comment subtly on the rapidly approaching war through what appears to be an extramarital farce.
When France's well-to-do gather at the country estate of the Marquis Robert de La Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) for a weekend of shooting, we observe a society so wrapped up in its trivial pursuits that it ignores the reality around it. French viewers of 1939 were taken aback by this criticism, the treatment of anti-Semitism (Robert is Jewish) and the brutality of the hunting scene in which rabbits and birds are slaughtered, foreshadowing both a climactic event in the film and the coming war.
Renoir’s famous empathy for his characters is in play here even as he spotlights their shortcomings, but it was diminished when he was forced to cut the film, making its theme seem more heavy-handed. The greatness of The Rules of the Game comes from the vividness of its diverse characters, with the bumbling Octave (wonderfully played by Renoir himself) the standout. The film offers a portrait of a way-of-life about to vanish forever.
Extras include a commentary by late Renoir scholar Alexander Sesonke (read by Peter Bogdanovich), commentary on two scenes by Chris Faulkner, information about the 1959 restoration, a 1967 tribute by Jacques Rivette, an excellent look at Renoir’s life and career from a 1995 British television documentary by David Thompson and a series of lively interviews. -- Michael Adams