BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Jan 20th, 2004 •

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Criterion 1939. 106 mins. B&W. 1.33:1 AR. Double Disc.

Well, what do you say about this…? Everything laudatory has already been said, over and over. It’s on top ten lists world wide, filmmakers like Orson Welles revered it. One might come to see it with a feeling of dread lest one not appreciate it on the exalted level it demands.

Which is exactly how I came to the art theater where it was playing, back in the mid-sixties, midway through my college education at Tulane University in New Orleans. And indeed I was impressed, though not overwhelmed. What struck me was a) the light, farcical nature of a film I’d expected to be heavily draped in its own significance, and b) the crappy quality of the image, contrasty, grainy, unpleasant to watch. What I didn’t know was that the original negative had been destroyed in World War II, nor was I aware of the film’s scathing critical reception in France at the time of its release.

Now, nearly forty years after that screening, I found myself watching a refurbished and reconstructed DVD of the film so remarkable that I cannot imagine the original materials looking any better. There is still a three minute scene missing, but in a prologue filmed a few decades ago, Renoir dismisses the scene as unimportant, perhaps out of modesty since he was the actor featured in the scene. I remembered my original viewing clearly enough to be astonished at the velvety gray tones where formerly no grays existed, only repugnant, generations-removed blacks and whites. I found myself thrilled all over again by the seemingly limitless ability of film archeologists and DVD technology to reward our desires with all this beauty and supplementary material.

Back when, I would argue with film historian William K. Everson, a frequent contributor to FIR, that historical perspective is necessary to fully appreciate films, not only of the times in which the films were made, but about the filmmakers as well. And he would strenuously object, believing that a film must stand on its own. My obvious example is Chaplin, whose chronological film career reads like one long autobiography – the more you know about his childhood, and his adult trials and tribulations, the more profound his films become. But here I have another great example. By itself, RULES OF THE GAME is not unlike UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS, or Altman’s GOSFORD PARK, a social satire done with perhaps a tad more skill than the latter two, but with about equal portions of insight and success. Not so, once you’ve listened to Peter Bogdanovich’s commentary track, itself a reading of an essay by film scholar Alexander Sesonske. Watching the film again, and listening now to its history, one realizes that farce was the only palatable form Renoir could use to cloak his anger at the capitalist bourgeoisie for their myriad failings – kind of like Honda giving Japan GODZILLA rather than a literal depiction of the atom bomb so soon after the cataclysm. During the frenzy of WWII, the French were just not willing to accept this kind of attitude, even in disguise, and they reviled the picture, where we, sixty-five years hence, have none of that perspective going into it. Therefore I think it’s a must to see the disc twice to fully appreciate it. And it’s certainly a must to own it. I’m more fond of it than GRAND ILLUSION, perhaps because of its graceful camera moves that are more modern in design and execution even than what we can do with a steadicam.

DVD Features:
Disc one: Restored image and sound. Intro to film by Jean Renoir. Audio commentary written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske, read by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. Improved English subtitle translation.

Disc two: Excerpts from JEAN RENOIR, LE PATRON: LA REGLE ET L’EXCEPTION (1966), a French TV program by Jacques Rivette. Part one of JEAN RENOIR, a two part 1993 BBC doc by David Thompson. Discussion of the film’s reconstruction. Interviews w/ Renoir’s son, Alain, asst. camera on the film, set designer Max Douy, and actress Mila Parely.

Director & Screenplay: Jean Renoir.
Producer: Claude Renoir Sr.
AD: Andre Zwobada & Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Director of Photography: Jean Bachelet.
Production designers: Eugene Lourie & Max Douy.
Editor: Marguerite Renoir.

Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir, Mila Parely, Odette Talazac, Paulette Dubost, Julien Carette.

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