- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Jean Renoir’s great cinematic indiscretion of the pre-World War II period, “The Rules of the Game,” returns tomorrow for a revival engagement at the Landmark E Street Cinema, boasting a new 35mm print from the movie’s current distributor, Rialto Pictures. If you’re unfamiliar with the legend of this initially scorned and eventually revered picture, reserve some time to become acquainted.

A social comedy, set among the engaging but perilously idle and oblivious rich at a chateau where a hunting party and an evening of revels become the major portentous events, “La Regle du jeu” opened to overwhelming disenchantment and active resentment in Paris in July 1939. It reversed course two decades later, vindicated by a restored version and radically altered, appreciative climate of opinion. A double investment could prove rewarding: after viewing the movie in what promises to be an optimum theatrical print, acquire the handsome DVD edition packaged by the Criterion Collection.

This two-disc set includes several revealing supplements that recall the movie’s checkered career. The filmmaker himself testifies in a number of inserts, typically shot for French or British television during the 1960s. Other first-hand witnesses include the film’s production designer, Max Douy, and two of the leading actresses, Mila Parely and Paulette Dubost. Alain Renoir, the director’s son, a teenage camera assistant on “Rules,” contributes an invaluable memoir filmed only four years ago. This segment will be especially welcome to former English students at the University of California who recall Professor Renoir as an infectiously enthusiastic guide through “The Age of Chaucer.” He remains an endearing, inimitable presence.

Jean Renoir (1894-1979), the second son of the great impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, had been a maverick fixture of the French movie industry throughout the 1930s. Back-to-back successes in 1937-1938 with “La Grande Illusion” and “La Bete Humaine” helped bankroll his own production company, Nouvelle Edition Francaise. “La Regle du jeu” was destined to make a prompt calamity of that venture. Its failure also turned Mr. Renoir into an overnight disgrace in his own country.

The downfall began at advance screenings and continued through initial bookings, despite the director’s desperate attempts to control the damage by cutting footage. While reducing the movie from roughly 100 to 80 minutes, he often sacrificed scenes that emphasized his own role as a playful, shambling, ultimately brokenhearted hanger-on called Octave, everyone’s confidant and go-between. One eye-opening DVD supplement illustrates how severely these cuts altered the last 10 minutes of the film.

“Rules” was banned by the pre-Vichy government as a “demoralizing” influence. To be precise, it reflected moods of evasion and demoralization in high society that were already terminal — and not exactly foreign to other sectors of the population as well. A Communist Party sympathizer (though not a member) while committed to the Popular Front coalition of the mid-1930s, Mr. Renoir was obliged to absorb the shock of the Nazi-Soviet pact a month or so after his movie took a thrashing.

After the German invasion and conquest in the summer of 1940, Mr. Renoir quietly formulated plans to exile himself as soon as possible. While ostensibly considering a German offer to supervise the film industry — no doubt a cynical gesture, since the Third Reich had banned “Grande Illusion” and had no love for “Rules of the Game” — he accepted American offers relayed through documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty.

Mr. Renoir secured a visa and departed — via Morocco and Portugal with his consort, Dido Freire, the script girl on “Rules.” Coincidentally, their romance had severed his relationship with the film’s editor, who called herself Marguerite Renoir. So, the infidelities that run rampant in the movie were being replicated in earnest in the filmmaker’s private life. (Initially under contract to 20th Century-Fox, Mr. Renoir directed five American features from 1941-47.)

In a prologue to the restored version of “Rules,” Jean Renoir recalls that he was attempting a balancing act that was always shaky. “I wanted it to be an agreeable film,” he says, “that would at the same time function as a critique of a society I considered rotten to the core — and still do.” The governing impulse was apprehension about a probable European war, already anticipated by civil war in Spain. Mr. Renoir’s attempt to rekindle internationalism in “La Grande Illusion” by evoking sentiments from the World War I period that transcended nationality had impressed the moviegoing world without having the slightest effect on Axis war aims.

A phrase from the reign of Charles X echoed as he planned “Rules of the Game” — “dancing along a volcano.” This sense of fearing that you belong to a society that is sleepwalking toward disaster is once again so prevalent that the movie may enjoy a renewed sense of urgency, even though its specific preoccupations and allusions are 70 years old and also reflect a fondness for the satirical theater of earlier centuries.

Mr. Renoir thought that evocations of classic comic playwrights — Moliere, Mariveaux, de Musset, Beaumarchais — might give his film a deceptive gaiety and keep the ominous undercurrents effectively concealed. Instead, the sneaky subtext made itself all too apparent to the first generation of French patrons, who despised the masquerade and its implications.

“Rules of the Game” never belonged to a thematically innocuous tradition of boudoir comedy. Morever, Alain Renoir recalls that the movie’s premiere showing in Paris took place in a wealthy, fashionable district. The showcase may have magnified the immediate offense.

Contemporary spectators will have few problems with the movie’s thematic intentions and ironies. In many respects it appears to anticipate Robert Altman’s gliding, perusing, multi-faceted pictorial style while serving as a self-evident forerunner to “Gosford Park,” which observed comparable characters in an English setting of the same period. The Renoir willingness to understand and forgive wastrels is now regarded as one of his characteristic virtues. A particular line has immortalized this tendency, Octave’s “The awful thing in this life is that everyone has his reasons.”

At this point specators may be more shocked by the movie’s equanimity about sacrificing game — rabbits and pheasants during the hunting sequence. Always powerful metaphorically, even more so in the aftermath of World War II, this semi-documentary spectacle now contradicts standard Hollywood practice of protecting critters and substituing props for most animals that appear to fall to hunters’ guns.

One of the principal off-camera marksmen, according to his own account, was Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photographic renown was still to come. During the late 1930s he worked as an assistant director for Jean Renoir, who disliked hunting and probably delegated the gunfire footage to his assistants.

TITLE: “The Rules of the Game” (“La Regle du jeu”)

WHERE: Landmark E Street Cinema, 11th and E streets NW

WHEN: Starts tomorrow.

RATING: No MPAA rating (originally released in 1939, years before the advent of the rating system; U.S. release of the restored version in 1962; adult subject matter, with occasional violence and frequent allusions to infidelity)

CREDITS: Directed by Jean Renoir. Screenplay by Mr. Renoir and Carl Koch, suggested by Alfred de Musset’s “Les Caprices des Marianne. Cinematography by Jean Bachelet. Assistant directors: Carl Koch, Andre Zwoboda and Henri-Cartier Bresson. Costumes by Coco Chanel. Musical arrangements by Joseph Kosma and Roger Desormieres

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterioco.com

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