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The Essential Movie Library #34: The Rules of the Game (1939)

A picture that wouldn't die

The quintessential comedy of manners, French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s masterpiece involves one of cinema’s most familiar set-ups: Gather together in a sprawling French chateau a motley assortment of dinner guests, including heartbroken aviators, wayward wives and their wayward husbands, trigger-happy gamekeepers and mistaken witnesses and poachers on the prowl, women plotting conquests and men hitting on other men’s women as a matter of habit—“everyone,” critic David Thomson has pointed out, “is in love with the wrong person”—and, finally and most of all, narcissistic aristocrats for whom the little people are disposable. Then throw in a dash of the ominous politics of the day, as France teetered before Hitler’s onslaught and subsequent occupation, and let the fun begin. Five thousand miles away and a year or two before, amid less class-conscious lives this bedlam would have made for a screwball comedy starring Cary Grant; but people found it more subversive than funny, as if the one could never be the other. The Rules of the Game was a movie that people kept trying to burn, from audiences who tried to set the theaters on fire to Nazis who wanted to destroy the prints to Allies bombing the original into dust. 

Like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (Essential Movie Library #3), however, The Rules of the Game was a picture that wouldn’t die, meticulously reassembled from bits and pieces nearly two decades after its original premiere by fans who thought more highly of the movie than an earlier generation. Later Buñuel would take Renoir’s Party at the End of Time into the realm of the surreal, though certainly Renoir must have thought he already beat him to it. In a seemingly endless résumé comprised of not only this film but Grand Illusion, Boudu Saved From Drowning, and especially the ‘50s color pictures The River (set in hue-saturated India) and French Cancan (set in the Parisian music halls frequented by his famous impressionist father), Renoir v.2 upstaged Renoir v.1 the only way a devoted son could, by liberating paintings from their canvases and setting them on the run like hounds chasing the rabbit. When he died in L.A. at the close of the ‘70s, he was called by Orson Welles the greatest director who ever lived. Welles said outlandish things from time to time, but nobody thought this was one of them.

Read them all:
The Essential Movie Library #33: Chinatown
The Essential Movie Library #32: Stalker
The Essential Movie Library #31: Weekend
The Essential Movie Library #30: Some Like It Hot 
The Essential Movie Library #29: Red River
The Essential Movie Library #28: The Passenger
The Essential Movie Library #27: Singin' in the Rain
The Essential Movie Library #26: Heat
The Essential Movie Library #25: L'Atalante
The Essential Movie Library #24: Sunrise
The Essential Movie Library #23: His Girl Friday
The Essential Movie Library #22: Black Narcissus
The Essential Movie Library #21: Blade Runner
The Essential Movie Library #20: Persona
The Essential Movie Library #19: The Shop Around the Corner
The Essential Movie Library #18: Lost Highway
The Essential Movie Library #17: Tokyo Story
The Essential Movie Library #16: 8 1/2

The Essential Movie Library #15: City Lights
The Essential Movie Library #14: Seven Samurai
The Essential Movie Library #13: Lawrence of Arabia
The Essential Movie Library #12: Citizen Kane
The Essential Movie Library #11: Jules and Jim
The Essential Movie Library #10: My Darling Clementine 
The Essential Movie Library #9: Double Indemnity 
The Essential Movie Library #8: That Obscure Object of Desire 
The Essential Movie Library #7: 2001: A Space Odyssey 
The Essential Movie Library #6: Casablanca
The Essential Movie Library #5: The Lady Eve
The Essential Movie Library #4: The Third Man 
The Essential Movie Library #3: The Passion of Joan of Arc 
The Essential Movie Library #2: Vertigo 
The Essential Movie Library #1: The Godfather Trilogy