Looking at it today, it's hard to comprehend how outraged audiences were in 1939 viewing Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. The film centers on a house party attended by the cream of society; during its riotous goings-on, class distinctions are blurred and the servants and guests fall together in a love roundelay that has surprising (even deadly) consequences. It was that breakdown of the class system, the suggestion that the "rules of the game" had been broken, that had audiences up in arms in '39. (The Occupation went a step further, banning the film on grounds of immorality.) Memories of outrage are not enough to sustain a film's reputation for decades (remember Forever Amber?), but The Rules of the Game has another distinction that keeps it current: it's one of the greatest films that France -- or any country -- has ever produced.
Not that its greatness is so easy to read for a lot of filmgoers today. The Rules of the Game is the very embodiment of an "invisible" directorial style and its greatness lies in part in its supremely light touch. Renoir (whose Grand Illusion is perhaps his best-known work) is justly remembered for this style, a technique in which the director never, ever intrudes and in which the audience is trusted to observe the proceedings and draw conclusions for itself. To say that this technique has vanished from Hollywood filmmaking today is to be pointlessly coy; it could be that modern audiences would be as scandalized by the absence of flashbacks, temporal shuffling, freeze-frames, and Steadicams as those in '39 were by the absence of redeeming moralizing.
Not to mention that it defined a style of filmmaking as surely as The Battleship Potemkin ever did. Shot in a deep focus that renders background and foreground action clear to the viewer and complemented by immaculate, smooth camera work and editing, Renoir's lucid craftsmanship here stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Potemkin's Eisenstein. Eisenstein manipulated, and he used (and in most cases invented) every trick film had to offer to bring the audience to his side. In The Rules of the Game, Renoir presents his action with no intrusion, without comment, and with a seeming effortlessness that belies a skill still unequalled today.
So it is that the plot machinery of The Rules of the Game is set into action so naturally that the viewer may be surprised to realize the intricacies of the thing once it's underway. In this Gosford Park-like upstairs/downstairs schematic, we find, among others, a world-famous aviator, a marquis, his wife, and his mistress; downstairs a jealous gamekeeper (Gaston Modot, who had the good fortune to appear in that other touchstone of '30s cinematic scandal, Luis Buñuel's L'age d'or) watches as his wife falls for the charms of a poacher who has been brought into the staff over his objections. As the weekend's amusements unfold -- a play, a rabbit hunt, and an unforgettable masquerade ball -- the plot machinery accelerates until a perfectly controlled, exquisitely funny mayhem is achieved.
The Rules of the Game is unlike anything in the theaters today and, with Buñuel gone, there exists no filmmaker on Earth who is capable of having made anything like it. What it requires of you is your attention -- you can't slip it in the DVD tray and vacuum, have sex, cook, or whatever. It's not Stigmata. But what it returns is a film experience that's among the chief pleasures of an art form. Kudos to the Criterion Collection for restoring this true classic (complete with an intro from Renoir, scholarly commentary, a side-by-side feature on the film's two endings, and a second disc of literally endless Renoir arcana) to our ungrateful world.
Aka La Règle du jeu.