When I’m floored by the dreaded party question "What’s your favorite movie of all time?," there’s one film I can always rely on to rescue me. Made and set in 1939, just after France and England had handed Czechoslovakia to Hitler in a misguided effort to forestall an all-out war, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is a classic comedy of bourgeois manners shot through with grief for a disintegrating Europe.Inspired by the commedia dell’arte of Musset and Beaumarchais, Renoir’s deceptively breezy tale of a lovelorn hunting party holed up in a country chateau is an anatomy of petty vanity and betrayal, above and below stairs, that builds from giddy satire to chastening tragedy, foreshadowing the carnage to come all over the continent. A total flop when it was released, the movie was subsequently cut and re-cut to ribbons in a vain attempt to make it more commercial. When the original negative was found after World War II and the movie was restored almost to its former glory, Renoir received the long-overdue adulation he deserved from critics and public alike. Now, alongside a three-disc set of Renoir’s late-career films The Golden Coach, French Can-Can and Elena and Her Men, the Criterion Collection, home to one of the finest DVD catalogs in the country, has released the reconstructed version of The Rules of the Game in a gorgeous two-disc set, complete with a revelatory shot-by-shot commentary read by Peter Bogdanovich from the work of film scholar Alexander Sesonske, along with essays and interviews with filmmakers and critics, including a mischievous introduction by Renoir himself.
Tempering a civilizing humanism ("Everyone has their reasons") with an unsettling disillusion ("Today everyone lies"), The Rules of the Game is a breathtaking masterpiece of period specificity and timeless wisdom. (Criterion Collection; TheRules of the Game, $39.95; The Golden Coachbox set, $80)