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Review of the Criterion 2-disc DVD edition
le 24 janvier 2004
On the surface, THE RULES OF THE GAME is a frivolous satire of the French ruling class during the interwar years. But beneath it, this 1939 film is a rather sweeping appraisal on human nature and how the rigidity of our society continues to undermine our humanity. With a microcosmic cast of characters that comprises of masters and servants, the film weaves an intricate plot about their love, jealousies, deceit, infidelities, hypocrisies, misunderstandings, and, at times, reconciliations, and realignments of friends and foes. Through their travails, the film depicts a symbolic breakdown, and ultimately restoration, of the prevailing social order, resulting in the film being both a comedy and a tragedy. Director Jean Renoir also acts in the film, playing the pivotal role of an outsider (obviously a stand-in for the audience). His character's futile attempts to break into the "circle" and to bring about the well-beings of his friends suggest that it is often difficult to survive under the social order, let alone change it.
The Criterion DVD is an all-region two-disc set with a newly restored video transfer and plenty of rewarding extra material. This eagerly-awaited disc was originally to be released last Fall, when Criterion had already finished a video transfer that would have looked better than any existing copy of the film. But at the last minute, Criterion received word that an earlier-generation fine-grain master of the film had been located in France, and that additional improvement, though not dramatic, could be made to the picture quality. Being the perfectionist that it often is, Criterion decided to redo the video transfer based on the fine-grain master, thus delaying the DVD's release by several months. According to the New York Times article "Hunting 'The Rules of the Game'" on Jan-18-04, the redone transfer justified the additional time and cost by yielding more details in dark areas and richer shades of grey on the picture, resulting in a less harsh look and perhaps subliminally making the characters in the film seem more sympathetic.
The DVD's video quality is indeed the best I've ever seen. Its sharpness and clarity of details are a revelation to those who have seen, for instance, Criterion's laserdisc version years ago. A digital cleanup process has been used to eliminate much (but not all) of the dirt and blemishes. The original French audio track has also been improved, and it now sounds cleaner, with almost no hiss and pops, and more detailed. In a film that relies on its numerous visual and audio details to be effective, the technical improvements made for this DVD are absolutely worthwhile and welcomed.
Accompanying the film is a superb analytical audio commentary written by film historian and Renoir's friend Alexander Sesonske, and read fluidly by Peter Bogdanovich. Recorded in 1989 for the Criterion laserdisc, this commentary analyzes the intricate relationships of the characters, how their actions often counterpoint one another's, and what Renoir intends to accomplish with them. It points out that the story creates two groups of quintets, each comprising of a husband, wife, lover, mistress, and interceding friend, and that the actions in one group are often the opposites of the other. The commentary also mentions the political climate in which Renoir made the film, as well as the classical works (such as The Marriage of Figaro) that inspired Renoir.
A 30-minute excerpt of the 1967 TV documentary "Jean Renoir, le patron", originally included in the laserdisc version, is also included in this DVD. It is essentially an interview of Renoir, who talks about his shooting style, and the themes and characters of the film. There is also a rather poignant moment of Renoir reuniting with actor Marcel Dalio at the steps of the "La Colinière," where they reminisce about their experience.
The DVD includes a great one-hour documentary on Renoir and RULES OF THE GAME, made by BBC in 1993. It recalls Renoir's childhood, upbringing, how his love of the movies developed, and his film career up to and including RULES OF THE GAME. It shows fascinating clips of his early films such as LA FILLE DE L'EAU, CHARLESTON, NANA, LA CHIENNE, BONDU SAVED FROM DROWNING, and others. It also includes comments from his family members, friends, collaborators, and other filmmakers such as Bertrand Tavernier, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Peter Bogdanovich.
Perhaps the best supplement in the whole DVD set is a "Version Comparison" that provides side-by-side comparison of the final scenes in two versions of the film: the shorter 81-minute cut which Renoir reluctantly made in response to criticisms, and the longer 106-minute version that was reconstructed in 1959 (the version used for this DVD's presentation). Film historian Christopher Faulkner's commentary provides further elucidation on the differences between the two. Thus, we can plainly see for ourselves that the shorter version drastically eliminates many of the subtleties and alters the meaning of the film's final moments completely.
Also valuable is a 10-minute interview footage of the two people who reconstructed the 1959 version, Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand. They recall their multi-year efforts in finding film elements from all over the world, and eventually discovering several minutes of footage that was not in Renoir's original version (one of such footage is the long conversation between Octave and André at the knoll in the countryside).
Other extras include an 8-minute "video essay" (a featurette) on the film's production history, 3 interview segments, and several written tributes by today's filmmakers, which include a few pretty thoughtful mini-essays on the film as well as succinct comments such as that from Robert Altman: "THE RULES OF THE GAME taught me the rules of the game."