One of the greatest films of all time gets a new 4K restoration, and though the transfer lacks HDR, it reverently honors director Jean Renoir's masterpiece. The Rules of the Game remains a searing study of the French upper class that's peppered with brilliant satire and punctuated by a dramatic climax. A host of fine performances and boundless cinematic style add to the allure of this fascinating feature that demands repeat viewings. The excellent video, newly remastered audio, and all the supplements from the 2011 Blu-ray make this upgrade mandatory. Highly Recommended.
Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game has been cited by many critics and scholars as one of the greatest films of all time, and my former colleague Steven Cohen will tell you why in his masterful analysis of the movie, reprinted below from his review of the 2011 Criterion Blu-ray. I share both Steven's respect and enthusiasm for this incisive portrait of a frivolous, immoral, and self-absorbed segment of elite French society in the late 1930s. Renoir adroitly skewers his upper crust characters (who could easily populate a Woody Allen movie) through a series of comic episodes that ultimately lead to a dramatic denouement. The Rules of the Game still captivates more than eight decades after it premiered and celebrates one of the directors who elevated motion pictures and helped transform an industry into an art form.
Here's Steven's thoughts from his 2011 Rules of the Game - Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review:
One of the most essential and defining characteristics of cinema is the simple cut. As pioneered and expanded upon by masters like Sergei Eisentstein in seminal works such as Battleship Potemkin, various forms of film montage are an excellent means of forging meaning in images through an overtly formalistic and artificial juxtaposition of shots. As powerful as dialectical montage can be, it is far from the only cinematic technique at a director's disposal, and a slightly antithetical stylistic approach can be just as potent.
This brings us to Jean Renoir and his celebrated 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game, a biting, multi-faceted satire on upper-class superficiality. As pointed out by many notable theorists including the great Andre Bazin, the film is not only home to intelligent social commentary and intricate character work, but also to a highly influential free-roaming camera. While Renoir does indeed use different types of montage to great effect throughout the picture, instead of cutting he often chooses to linger on extended takes, relying on a shifting, reframing camera and deep focus to sustain the illusion of reality. Meaning is implied not through the contrast of spliced shots but through the actual movement of the frame, connecting images within the same take. It is this fusion of timeless, intelligent content and influential visual style that really cements the film as such an important and treasured classic.
The script is an ensemble piece that follows a group of bourgeois companions as they retreat to a chateau to enjoy a weekend of hunting and celebration. As the plot evolves, various love affairs and triangles develop between the wealthy aristocrats and their servants, revealing a turbulent, often comical web of relationships. Faint bits of compassion and honesty struggle to endure throughout the frivolous environment, and as the group adheres to the various social rules of their insular class, their rather shallow personalities and irresponsible actions all lead to an eventual, violent tragedy.
Renoir injects the story with striking satire and uses his characters and plot as a means to form a humorous but enlightening treatise on the upper-class French society of the time. In many ways, most of the characters are merely overgrown children, seemingly inexperienced in real emotion or problems, instead choosing to engage in trivial, meaningless pursuits. The relationship between these noblemen and their servants also forms an interesting parallel, and in many respects these hired hands only end up mirroring the same playful emptiness of their employers.
While the film is often described as a mocking indictment of such characters (and it certainly is), Renoir is far too gifted a storyteller to craft a purely one-sided work, and instead finds a way to both ridicule and cherish his creations. Through the writing and performances, the ensemble becomes ghastly yet endearing, reprehensible but charming. Their careless actions bring upon unsavory ends, but there never seems to be any truly mean-spirited intent. This duality is a key component to the success of the picture and works hand-in-hand with many other contrasting themes and dilemmas that often see unlikely pairings blossom among the characters.
Bringing life to these complex, wealthy fools is a cast of excellent performers that includes the director himself. As the Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest, Marcel Dalio is fantastic, creating a nervous, insecure, child-like man that somehow remains elegant and charismatic. His fascination with old trinkets and toys works perfectly with the film's deeper themes and ideas, leading to a particularly brilliant shot full of visual subtext that features the Marquis introducing one of his most prized possessions.
Nora Gregor plays the Marquis' wife, Christine, and provides a refreshingly cryptic performance. While her true intentions are uncertain for much of the running time, to me it seemed like all the character really wanted was for someone to whisk her away from all the nonsense surrounding her. Vying for Christine's affections is André Jurieux (Roland Toutain), a heroic pilot and true romantic. He clashes with the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie and only joins the festivities to try and win over his love. Other performers like Paulette Dubost, Mila Parely, Julien Carette, and Gaston Modot all round out the ensemble as various aristocrats, workers, and maids, creating an all-encompassing portrait of an entire, very isolated society.
Under Renoir's guidance they all effectively lampoon their alter egos while still maintaining a level of likeability and believability. Actually, speaking of Renoir, it is the director himself who turns in one of the film's most moving performances. As Octave, Renoir presents a gentle and kind soul who seems to be very aware of the more ugly realities that define the various rules of his upper-class lifestyle. In many ways, the character becomes the heart of the story and is its most sympathetic voice.
Complementing the comically rich characterizations and performances is the legendary French filmmaker's effortless style. Renoir uses the camera to great effect creating a classically composed work that offers an ambiguous visual quality. The director's appliance of deep focus allows the numerous layers of the frame to be used fully, staging action not just to the left and right, but in the foreground, middleground, and background. Little details are constantly on display, allowing the viewer to choose which portion of the screen to focus on.
The often roaming camera takes this aspect one step further, adding a level of movement to the proceedings. As the various characters populate and journey around the chateau we will frequently move from one person to the next without cutting, visually linking their personalities and plotlines together while maintaining an air of constant activity. Through his long takes and reframing images, Renoir presents a world that continues to exist beyond the borders of the screen. As the action escalates and the story takes on a more exaggerated tone - with various characters feuding with and fleeing from one another during a party - the clashing pieces come together like a hilariously orchestrated chess game. The roaming lens perpetuates the illusion that all of the various intersecting storylines and dilemmas are occurring simultaneously, while all the while, whether the camera is there or not, the party continues on unhindered.
Like any true masterpiece, The Rules of the Game is full of an almost limitless supply of material to discuss. The infamous "hunting" scene, for instance, in which the various aristocrats have their servants flush out rabbits and pheasants to be slaughtered without care, is a sequence worthy of an essay all its own. Or the extravagant and bizarrely intricate masquerade party and performance, featuring elaborate ghost and skeleton costumes that seem to exist for no other reason than to amuse the characters who wear them. All of these memorable sequences, multidimensional performances, humorous satirical observations, and inventive stylistic techniques come together to form a perfectly balanced and executed piece of cinema.
It is said that every cut is a lie, but by shifting the frame instead of jumping to a new shot, Renoir manages to prolong an illusion of truth in ways that traditional editing simply can't. By creating a visually and contextually ambiguous work, the director has crafted one of those rare films that benefits from repeat viewings. Each new watch may reveal details previously missed lurking in the background or on the edge of the frame or within a certain line or delivery, leading to an entirely different impression. As the story eventually works to a violent climax at the hands of the so-called rules that govern the characters' lives, we are left with an ironic, "classy" tragedy that ranks high among the greatest films ever made.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Criterion presents The Rules of the Game in a standard clear case with spine number 216. When first released, the film ran about 94 minutes but was cut to 81 minutes after negative backlash from audiences and critics. According to the liner notes, the original 94-minute version was destroyed during a World War II bombing raid, but in 1959 the movie was reconstructed by Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand, with Renoir's approval. The resulting 106-minute cut is the one included in this two-disc edition. The 4K UHD disc contains the main feature and audio commentary, while the 2011 Blu-ray houses the film and all the supplements. A hefty 48-page booklet featuring an essay by Alexander Sesonske, writings by Jean Renoir, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bertrand Tavernier, and Francois Truffaut, as well as tributes to the film by J. Hoberman, Kent Jones, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, Robert Altman, and others is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec on the 4K UHD disc is 2160p/HEVC H.265 (there is no HDR) and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with sound effects immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The liner notes state, "This new 4K restoration was undertaken in 2021...The image was restored...from the mostly nitrate composite negative." The resulting 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer is a substantial step up from the 2011 Blu-ray, which is included in this release. That 1080p transfer was created from "a 35 mm fine-grain master processed directly from the reconstruction negative pieced together by Gaborit and Durand..." The fact that this new 4K transfer is not enhanced by HDR may disappoint some viewers, but perhaps it's fitting for one of the greatest films of all time to retain as much organic authenticity as possible.
Far more consistent than its Blu-ray counterpart, this 4K transfer features heightened clarity and contrast while exuding a lovely film-like feel. Grain is quite evident, but it never looks noisy. Blacks are lush, the bright whites resist blooming, and a healthy gray scale enhances details and promotes a palpable sense of depth that really showcases Renoir's distinctive style that includes many deep focus shots. Excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay most of the time and ramps up the tension that brims during the nocturnal climax. Sharp close-ups highlight fine facial features, and though a few errant threads can be spotted at the edges of the frame, the source material is free of any glaring nicks, marks, or scratches. Some scenes are a tad softer than others, but that's to be expected when dealing with a reconstructed film.
By comparison, the Blu-ray suffers from disruptive image inconsistencies. Some sequences are darker while others err on the overly bright side. The shifts in tone are rather drastic and the picture overall looks flatter and duller than the 4K UHD image. Print damage, though not extensive, is certainly evident. Though the 1080p transfer served the film well for many years, it can't compete with the new 2160p restoration. The 4K UHD transfer won't knock your socks off, but it's a faithful, meticulous, and very solid rendering of a challenging film.
For a more detailed review of the Blu-ray image quality, click here.
The LPCM mono track has been remastered as well, and though the upticks in quality are slight, they are noticeable. According to the liner notes, the track was "restored from the nitrate optical soundtrack negative and sound negative from the 1959 mix" and the results yield a brighter, richer, more full-bodied track. Subtleties like chirping birds, rain, and footsteps are more prevalent, while sonic accents like gunfire, car engines, and the clicking sounds from sticks hitting tree trunks during the hunt sequence exude more punch. Dialogue is clear and well prioritized and a wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of the music and effects without any distortion. This track also sounds cleaner, with less surface noise creeping into the mix. Though its age can't be denied, the audio here is a cut above the 2011 rendering.
For a more detailed review of the Blu-ray audio, click here.
All the extras from Criterion's 2011 Blu-ray are included on the Blu-ray disc in this release. There is no new supplemental material. For a complete review of all the special features, please check out Steven Cohen's review of the 2011 Blu-ray by clicking here.
Criterion's 4K UHD treatment of The Rules of the Game may not brim with the visual razzle-dazzle of other classic movie upgrades, but it's a marked improvement over the 2011 Blu-ray and a faithful, reverent rendering of director Jean Renoir's masterpiece. The lack of HDR is a disappointment, but doesn't diminish enthusiasm for this edition. Newly remastered audio and all the Blu-ray supplements add to the appeal of this "classy" release that demands a spot in every cinephile's collection. Highly Recommended.