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.
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