Between Munich and World War II, fresh from his successes with La Bete Humaine and Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir set out to paint "a precise portrait of the bourgeoisie" in France (which to the end of his life he thought of as "rotten"). To this corrosive satire, he applied a light touch, the gossamer trappings of a Musset play or a Marivaux comedy. Indeed, La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) opens with a quotation from Beaumarchais. He set it fittingly for the most part with its eighteenth-century sensibility of upstairs-downstairs intrigues, romantic preoccupations, its casual anti-semitism and conformist mores in Le Château de La Ferté Saint-Aubin outside Paris in 1939. As a film-making experiment from this most democratic, one may say socialist, of film directors, Renoir often abandoned his shooting script in favour of improvisation.
The film's reception has passed into history. Although he called it a magnificent failure, Renoir was crushed by the hostility shown by critics and viewers when La Regle opened in an elegant part of Paris. He recalled a man at the screening setting fire to a newspaper hoping to burn the theatre down. Renoir summoned his "editor" Marguerite Huguet to the viewings so she could cut scenes where the audiences booed the loudest. Predictably, they objected to what they saw as caricatures of the haute bourgeoisie; to Nora Gregor's age and nationality; to Dalio’s aristocratic character’s Jewish ancestry; to Renoir's own character Octave; to the slaughter at the hunting scenes which presaged war; to the restless camera work; to voices appearing on the soundtrack before the actors came into view; to his use of the long shot through interiors to suggest depth of field where concurrent actions were taking place; to the mixture of styles; and to the ensemble, decentred approach that he had taken in making La Regle. Despite the cuts from a 94-minute film to a 80-minute distribution version, the film closed at the Coliseum in Paris after three weeks. It lasted a few months at another Parisian theatre. With the onset of war, the French government banned the film altogether on grounds that it was demoralizing. It certainly demoralized Renoir who declared that he would give up making films or leave France. After a brief stint in Italy he left France to avoid collaborating with the Vichy regime and the Germans and went to Hollywood. His film company NEF went bankrupt. La Regle did not play in France again until 1962. It is now hailed as a masterpiece and the movie that anticipated the French New Wave.
That there is a revival now is entirely due to Jean Gaborit, a film enthusiast, who was stung by Truffaut's review of his ciné club's version of La Regle and set out to find the negative and the ten prints in France and north Africa. He had heard that the negative had been burned at the GM Labs in Boulogne during the Allied bombing. However, he discovered 224 reels with negatives, dupes and different versions of La Regle there. He and Jacques Durand, a film technician, slowly worked through all the versions to assemble 20 minutes of unseen footage. They decided to consult Renoir so the footage could be added in the right places. One scene where Octave discusses the sexual habits of maids is missing but otherwise the film is complete. When this restored 106-minute version was screened for the first time before Renoir, the great man had tears in his eyes.
The Criterion Collection has issued this version in a two-disc set. And what a fine job it has done. The transfer from what might be a 35-mm fine-grain negative is crisp and the contrast between light and dark that marks the film is sharper and nuanced. There are minor items to cavil about: the scenes comparison could have used commentary but that is trivial. Watching these DVDs was like reading an authoritative critical edition of a great writer. If we ever move to e-books, Criterion's would be the model to bring to the market.