Following the disastrous Paris première of Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece The Rules Of The Game, a scene so volatile that one man reportedly tried to light the theater on fire, the film was recut from 94 minutes to 81 in accordance with the audience's howls. It's hard to fathom any movie provoking that kind of a response today, much less a comedy of manners that treats its damnable characters with a complexity and tact that defies mere caricature. Yet its reception, on the eve of WWII, ironically cements its status as one of the consensus greats, because Renoir's scathing critique of the bourgeois establishment was precise enough to strike a chord and subtly predict the coming doom. But not until 20 years later, long after the original negative was destroyed in the war, was The Rules Of The Game fully constructed into its current 106-minute form, with new footage added (with Renoir's approval) based on the shooting script. In the most illuminating feature on Criterion's new two-DVD edition, scholar Chris Faulkner conducts a side-by-side comparison between the shortened 1939 release and the 1959 restoration, cogently arguing that the two versions are completely different films. The one that originally enraged the masses plays more harshly as social commentary, depicting, in Faulkner's words, "unsavory characters in a vicious world." Missing are crucial scenes that grant its principals greater dimension and humanity, especially the character played by Renoir, whose actions lead directly to murder in the 1939 version, but seem more ambiguous in the restoration. Time hasn't cooled Renoir's provocative vision of a decadent and immoral society crumbling into chaos, but the changes have balanced and deepened it, clarifying the tangled relations among the eight major characters and giving the rhyming structure the bounce of great poetry. Set over a weekend hunting party at a luxurious château, The Rules Of The Game makes sharp distinctions between the wealthy in the upper floors and the servants below; any crossover carries dire consequences. When underclass pilot Roland Toutain repeats Charles Lindbergh's flight over the Atlantic for the well-heeled Nora Gregor, he meets only indifference. His invitation to the château unmasks and inspires more dalliances, including one between Gregor's husband (Marcel Dalio) and a socialite (Mila Parély), and another between a servant girl (Paulette Dubost) and local poacher Julien Carette. A mascot of sorts–part interloper, part court jester–Renoir the actor moves freely from one floor to the other, unattached to and unclaimed by all the parties involved. Renoir's contempt for these rotten, insular aristocrats gets its strongest workout in the famed hunting sequence, when wild rabbits and pheasants are driven out into the open and slaughtered for sport. He once said later that none of these people are worth saving, but The Rules Of The Game isn't the pheasant shoot that Renoir suggests: Its characters aren't without depth or feeling, and they're not incapable of love. Far from muting the satire, Renoir's hearty characterization complicates it and gives it life, which is rare among broadsides at the bourgeoisie. After all, to quote the film's most famous line, "Everyone has their reasons."
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