Francois Truffaut once called Jean Renoir “the father of us all,” which would make Renoir’s 1939 self-described “whimsical drama” “The Rules of the Game” daddy’s specially gifted child. Perhaps the most revered film maudit of them all, “Rules” receives a features-jammed two-disc Criterion Collection treatment that sheds light on how a now-undisputed masterwork survived a disastrous premiere and decades of neglect.
Seen today, pic’s story of tangled relationships amongst masters and servants at a country estate party may play to uninitiated as a French-lingo precursor to “Gosford Park.” Project was in fact conceived and shot between the Munich handover of Czechoslovakia to Hitler and the outbreak of World War II. Renoir’s depiction of French society was more than Parisian auds could stand, and following overtly hostile reaction he cut the print from 113 minutes to 90, then 85, then 81. Pic was banned as “demoralizing” by the government, with the negative destroyed by allied bombing in 1942.
In 1946 a pristine copy of the 85-minute version was found, and promptly shorn of another five minutes by the French distrib. Cut to 1958, when Paris-based enthusiasts Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand acquired the rights and gathered up as many extant prints as they could find. The discovery of some 200 cans of original cutting room fragments plus Renoir’s assistance resulted in the 106-minute version of the film that re-preemed at the 1959 Venice fest and has appeared in the top three of the six Sight & Sound surveys of world greats since 1962 (and is the last title from the 2002 list to achieve stateside DVD release).
Criterion’s pressing is superb. Contrast isn’t as pronounced as on the 1998 region two Editions Montparnasse version available in Europe, with much less overall grain and far more detail apparent in the darker passages. Prominent among release’s plenteous extras is a side-by-side version comparison of the 81- and 106-minute cuts from Ottawa-based Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner; it’s the closest thing to film school without tuition.
The commentary track is recycled from Criterion’s late 1980s laserdisc and features helmer Peter Bogdanovich’s melodious yet rapid-fire reading of texts by scholar Alexander Sesonske. Bonus disc has two Renoir docus (one by Jacques Rivette), a period chat with Gaborit and Durand as well as surviving principals, and written tributes from directors and critics. “‘The Rules of the Game,'” writes Robert Altman, “taught me the rules of the game.”