Rules of the Game: Greatest Film Ever?

The greatest film ever made.
Paul Schrader

The credo of film lovers, the film of films, the most despised on its release and the most valued afterward.
Francois Truffaut

In its first Parisian run, “Rules of the Game” was reviled by the French press and public. To Renoir's dismay, the film was butchered by its distributors, though the shorter version was no more popular. The film was then banned as demoralizing experience by the Vichy government and later by the Nazis. The negative was destroyed when the Allies bombed the studios. A major effort went into reassembling the original footage from numerous film cans and bits of soundtrack.

“Rules of the Game” was first released in its reconstructed form in 1956. In 1962, it was selected by an international poll of critics as one of the three greatest films ever made. Though there are critical fads and fashions, Renoir's film continues to appear on Ten Best Film Lists of all time.

Renoir's richly-densed social comedy has since become one of the most loved and analyzed films of all time. This tragic-comic farce is mostly set at a chateau where a group of people gathers for a weekend of hunting and partying. Renoir's expansive, Mozart-like vision encompasses the amorous dalliances, assignations and betrayals of masters and servants.

It became a timely text, fashioning a metaphor for the impending European war in two sequences of ritualized violence: a rabbit hunt and a botched duel. As Renoir himself observes: “I was influenced and troubled by the state of mind of French society, but felt that one way of interpreting this state of mind at that particular moment was precisely not to talk of the situation, but instead to tell a frivolous story.”

Arguably the most influential French film ever made, “Rules of the Game” is a summation work of poetic realism, representing the culmination of a remarkable decade of French filmmaking. The script, by Renoir, assisted by Carl Koch, was derived from Alfred de Musset's “Les Caprices de Marianne”.

It reveals Renoir's theatrical impulse, choosing as a model a dramatic fantasy that is indebted not only to Musset, but also Marivaux and Beaumarchais. This is evident in the dialogue, the division of characters into masters and servants, the “play within play” structure, the contrivance of the central situations. In the documentary, Renoir describes his film as a game with emotions that toys with both reality and illusion.

That the film becomes an almost prophetic portrait of the French bourgeoisie is due in part to Renoir's own appearance in the pivotal role of Octave, the go-between the worlds of upstairs and downstairsand the one who inadvertently triggers off the final tragedy.

The density of ideas, complexity of characters, and richness of entertainment call for multiple viewings of a film that's one of the universally undisputed masterpieces of world cinema.