The Rules of the Game aka La règle du jeu (1939)
At la Colinière, the deceptively idyllic country estate of a wealthy Parisian aristocrat, a selection of society's finest gather for a rural sojourn and shooting party; over the course of the weekend, all of their worst behaviors unmasked, this cream of the idle crop reveal themselves to be absurdly, almost primitively, cruel and vapid. It took decades for Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game to be recognized as a masterpiece, receiving negative reviews and even provoking near riots in Paris upon its release, in 1939, which resulted in Renoir cutting twenty-three minutes from the original version, and a subsequent ban by the French government. The original negative was destroyed during World War II, and only in 1959 was the film fully reconstructed from surviving prints and embraced by audiences and critics alike. Now, thanks to an unprecedented complete digital restoration today's audience can see the film as Renoir intended it to be seen originally. Playing with the lightest of touches, yet stinging like the greatest of tragedies, The Rules of the Game has come to be regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made.
The remarkable history of Rules of the Game
Part I, 1939–1959
No film of this stature has ever been received so harshly at a Paris premiere—yet more words have been written about Rules of the Game subsequently than any other film in the history of the French cinema. European film historians and directors alike consider Rules of the Game among the two or three greatest French films ever made, and their judgments are based on the only version of the film that has been available, mutilated and incomprehensible, from which thirty minutes is missing, including many essential developments. The French call it "le film maudit"—the film with a curse.
Renoir finished a skeleton treatment of Rules of the Game early in 1939, and , with several friends, set up a cooperative society to produce the film. Financing was arranged with considerable difficulty, but the production was announced as one of the most important and highest-budgeted of the year.
Troubles started with casting. Renoir had written the two leading roles with Simone Simon and Fernand Ledoux in mind—they had been paired in his commercially successful The Human Beast, and the actress was at the apogee of her fame. To everyone's chagrin, she demanded a third of the budget as her salary, and Renoir was obliged to look for a substitute.
One evening, at the theatre, he found her: the Princess Starhemberg (who later used the pseudonym Nora Gregor), an Austrian emigree with no previous acting experience and only rudimentary French. The Princess's accent and her great physical difference from Simone Simon necessitated a change in the casting of her husband, and the role went to Marcel Dalio, a happy choice for performance but one which led to some of the opening-night difficulties, since Dalio's Jewish origins were well-known and the film was violently attacked by the anti-Semitic press. The Princess's strong German accent added fuel to the flames of ultra-nationalism at a time when relations between France and Germany were at their lowest ebb.
On February 15, 1939, the entire cast and crew left for Sologne, where the exterior scenes were to be shot at the Chateude La Ferte-Saint-Aubin. Two weeks of steady rain prevented any work on the film, and Renoir used the costly delay to work on his unfinished shooting script. The celebrated rabbit hunt sequence, which lasts only a few minutes on the screen, required almost two months of effort, and had to be completed by a part of the crew left behind when Renoir returned to Paris, where some of the costliest sets of the pre-war French cinema had been built. Mobilization among employees of the production crew slowed the work still further. When it was finally completed, the film cost far more than the original budget allowed..
Rules of the Game opened at two theatres in Paris on July 7, 1939, following the enormously successful run of John Ford's Stagecoach. Before the feature started, there was a short documentary devoted to the glories of the French Empire, with waving flags and long lines of soldiers—a paean to the pride of the French nation. Perhaps this unfortunately-chosen short subject had something to do with audience reaction to the feature. At any rate, never has there been such an opening night! The audience began to whistle almost from the beginning of the picture, and the whistling changed little by little to angry shouting. Soon almost none of the dialogue could be heard in the uproar. Some of the spectators began to tear up the seats, others made torches of newspapers; at the end of the pictures, demonstrations almost turned into a riot. Although everyone realized there was little to be done to salvage the pictures, it was twice cut after Marguerite Renoir had sat through several showings to learn which scenes caused the worst reactions.Cy Harvey, founder of Janus Films
The critical reception was hardly better; most of the newspapers called the film a betrayal of the glory of France. It was a complete commercial disaster, and in October the government forbade its showing because of its demoralizing theme. The German and Vichy continued the ban. The original negative was destroyed by bombs, and at the end of the war only a few copies of the twice-cut version remained.
Rules of the Game was revived after the war, mainly in film societies. The New York premiere, during a particularly hot summer in a theatre without air-conditioning, had predictable results.
In 1956, two young French cinema enthusiasts, Jean Gaborit and Jacques Marechal, persuaded the owner of the rights to sell them the film and all remaining material. By a stroke of luck, they came across an old letter which led to 200 boxes of film in pieces in a warehouse, miraculously untouched. With infinite patience and several years of painstaking work, they managed to reconstitute the original version with only one small piece of less than a minute missing: a conversation between Octave and Jurieu in which the former explains that what attracts him to maids is their ability to make conversation.
Part II, 1959–2006
As digital technology has become more advanced over the last twenty years the possibilities for film preservation have increased manifold. For The Rules of the Game, which, thanks to the careful reconstruction in 1959 was now once again complete, the quality of the existing elements still posed a problem. The 1959 reconstruction was created from a patchwork of footage, meaning that all new 35mm prints made from the reconstruction in the last 50 years echo the same flaws as the original (murkiness, inconsistency, scratches).
Thanks to the boom of digital home video, the technology has now appeared to remove these flaws through a complete digital transfer, but for The Rules of the Game it was still important to start with the best possible elements.
In the mid-1980's, Criterion—which specializes in restoring classic films and lacing them with scholarly commentaries—put Rules of the Game out on laser disc. Its picture quality, though superior to the 16-millimeter reels that most people had seen at art houses or college film societies, was unacceptable by the standards of today's DVD's: soft-focused, murky and way too dark.
The laser disc was mastered from a print of the film's 1959 reissue.
Today, for anyone serious about making DVD's, a film print is an inadequate source. The ideal source is the original camera negative. But the negative for Rules of the Game was stored in a French warehouse that was bombed during World War II.
If the negative is unavailable, the next best source is the 35-millimeter "fine-grain master," which is processed straight from the negative. The next best after that is a duplicate negative, which is made from the fine-grain master. A print is made from the duplicate negative. That's three generations from the original camera negative—a copy of a copy of a copy of the real thing, each copy looking less pristine than the one before.
When Peter Becker, the president of Criterion, set out to make a DVD of Rules in the summer of 2001, he knew he had to find a better source than a mere print.
His executive producer in Paris, Fumiko Takagi, learned that a French film lab called GTC possessed a duplicate negative—one generation closer to the original. Examining the lab's records, she discovered that it also owned a fine-grain master, made from a negative for the 1959 reissue—another generation closer. But nobody at the lab could find it.
For two years, she begged and cajoled them to look harder. Finally, she gave up. The duplicate negative looked pretty good—better than any existing copy, on video or film. So last June, Lee Kline, Criterion's technical director, flew to Paris to make a DVD from the dupe negative.
"It really bothered me that a fine-grain master existed someplace and we were going with something worse," Mr. Kline recalled. "But this was all we had."
Meanwhile, Ms. Takagi kept pestering GTC. Suddenly, last August, just after she'd given up all hope, the lab told her the fine-grain master had been found. Mr. Kline, who had finished his work and returned to New York, flew back to Paris to take a look.
"It wasn't awesomely better, like when they found the original camera negative for The Grand Illusion," he said, referring to another Renoir masterpiece on Criterion DVD. "But the difference was big enough to justify doing it over.""Hunting The Rules of the Game", Fred Kaplan, NYT, 2004
After the release of The Rules of the Game on Criterion Collection DVD, the desire was still strong to see this film once again on celluloid and in theaters.
The Criterion Collection transferred the 35mm Fine Grain Composite Print that had been found in France to a high-definition (HD) digital video format called a D5. This D5 HD video was meticulously created on a system known as a Spirit Datacine at VDM laboratory in Paris, France. The audio source that was used was the original optical soundtrack. Full HD density correction was then completed at VDM to ensure that the film achieved a uniform clarity throughout, with Phillipe Reynaud, serving as Telecine operator (the individual who transfers film elements to video and performs color correction at that stage) and Maria Palazzola supervising the entire process. Then thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches were removed using the MTI Digital Restoration System. Audio restoration tools were also used to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle in the soundtrack.
Those steps, however, only marked the first phase in the creation of the new print. In the summer of 2006, that same D5 HD master was subjected to three more months of careful digital restoration (to prepare for projection on larger screens) and used as the source to create a completely new 35mm film negative, the first in 50 years, by outputting the HD video master to projectable 35mm film. This painstaking, exacting work was completed at Post Logic Hollywood.
The new 35mm prints created from this negative are dramatically better than any existing copy of The Rules of the Game. The film has never looked as sparkling as it does today.