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On Criterion 4K, The Rules of the Game Sparkles

Photo: courtesy Criterion Collection.

The Criterion Collection’s expansion of its 4K disc offerings both new and old continues this month with Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu / The Rules of the Game (1939) arriving in a combo Blu-ray/4K disc package with a sparkly brand-new remaster. A masterpiece of poetic realism and a dizzyingly delightful ride from its enigmatic opening to its tragic denouement, The Rules of the Game is repackaged here with all of the special features from its prior Blu-ray release in one of the Collection’s most comprehensive editions—a true delight for cinephiles.

The new package may not necessarily be worth the upgrade for those who already own Criterion’s excellent 2011 Blu-ray release, itself a high-definition digital transfer of an already-pristine fine-grain negative master. But either version is an absolute must-have for anyone seriously interested in cinema, such is the film’s excellence and the package’s special features’ scope. For those looking for the absolutely best home media version of one of cinema’s most treasured gems, the 4K disc will not disappoint: Renoir’s film looks here better—if by a slight degree so—than ever before.


The 4K remaster has The Rules of the Game looking in its finest form ever. It will take a sharp eye and an excellent system to discern the finer details of the upgrade. The gray balance is a bit more even, artifacts less visible, contrast slightly stronger, but these are details some viewers would not even notice unless they are looking for them, and on a high-end system to boot. The new remaster notes a 1.37 aspect ratio, compared to the prior’s 1.33 (without explanation), restored from a nitrate composite dupe negative. In some scenes, such as the film’s nighttime opening sequence, further detail is apparent in shadow; in daylight, actors’ faces are now completely free from digital artifacts, especially in close-up. But again, this is a minute, if not insignificant upgrade.

The jewel-case packaging abandons the frothy caricatures of Edward Sorel for a more stately booklet and cover art featuring only the film’s stylized title. The former emphasized the film’s more farcical qualities; the latter its aesthetics. Excepting for the production credits, the booklet’s contents are the exactly same as the 2011 version and, once again, they constitute a treasure trove of insightful essays, reminiscences, and tributes, well worth a careful read or three. The 4K restoration is on one of the package’s two discs; the Blu-ray on the other, alongside the copious special features.

Cover of "The Rules of the Game: A Film BY Jean Renoir" in stylized lettering on a dark gray background.
Image: courtesy The Criterion Collection


With its opening scene, The Rules of the Game both heralds and evidences a technical achievement. A radio reporter signals the news of an arriving aviator’s great accomplishment—a signal that will later connect threads of narrative action taking place in different locations. It’s an unusual way to begin a film in 1939, especially with the mobile camera and long tracking shot. The mood is that of the documentary newsreel—a single camera, low-key available lighting, and breathless coverage of the intrepid hero in a you-are-there style, if filtered through an unambiguously cinematic aesthetic.

The aviator, Andre Jurieux, is modeled on Charles Lindbergh, who is explicitly mentioned, but Andre’s masculinity as a hero is called directly and immediately into question. For all his great accomplishment, he is still in pain.  And his public speech commits a serious social faux pas, as he pronounces his love for a woman we shall soon learn to be married. For a man to express one’s feelings in public in his social circle is a violation of “the rules of the game.” (At least in Renoir’s day; in 21st century, that social prohibition seems to have changed.)

Image from Rules of the Game: aviator Andre Jurieux speaks into a microphone.

The very next scene contrasts the chaotic, modern, public world of Andre’s aviation accomplishment with the stilted artifice of his paramour’s boudoir. The radio broadcast conveys the impression that all of Paris has heard Andre’s inappropriate outburst, and that it will play an important role in what is to come. That he has expressed his private feelings on a public stage sets into motion a chain of events that cannot be reversed.

Andre’s inappropriate speech also presents an occasion in which all of the key characters in the narrative can be quickly be introduced. Renoir’s characters—most specifically Octave, Andre’s friend, played by director Jean Renoir himself; Robert de la Chesnaye, owner of the estate where the central action will take place; Andre Jurieux, the aviator; and Christine de la Chesnaye, the socialite with whom Andre is in love and to whom Robert is married—are the haute bourgeoisie, the upper middle class, whose self-indulgences had helped allow the bleak outlook in Europe in 1939.

Image from Rules of the Game: Christine and Octave embrace.

Beginning with these simple character types—jealous husband, faithless wife, despairing lover, and intervening friend—Renoir creates one set among the masters, then a second, similarly structured other among the servants, in particular Lisette, Christine’s maid; Schumacher, an employee of Robert’s and Lisette’s husband; and Marceau, a poacher and Schumacher’s rival for Lisette’s affections. There is no central protagonist. “The conception I had from the beginning was of a film representing a society, a group,” Renoir said. “I had desired to show a rich, complex society where—to use a historic phrase—we are dancing on a volcano.”

The phrase “poetic realism,” often used to describe Renoir’s work generally and The Rules of the Game specifically, may be imprecise, even on the surface like “magical realism” more than a little oxymoronic. Unlike the later Italian neorealists, Renoir does not employ nonprofessional actors, nor does he eschew melodramatic conventions and coincidence. His style is purely cinematic, a masterful mélange of long-take tracking shots, with carefully staged deep-focus compositions revealing an almost geometric calculation of mise-en-scene. His camera is artfully mobile, his transitions clever, and the narrative itself a dizzying masterpiece of coincidence and irony. So fulsome is his aesthetic it proved a pivotal influence on perhaps the most influential film in all of cinema: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, released two years later, borrowing much from Renoir’s moving-camera, long-take, exquisitely-choreographed, deep-focus cinema.

None of these are traits one associates with realism. Yet Renoir’s characters are grounded in a realistic if upper-class milieu, their actions are all motivated, plausible, and consistent, and their concerns are those of the everyday haute bourgeoisie—their desires, diversions, and disagreements drive the plot towards its dizzying, disastrous conclusion.

The Rules of the Game is as much as any film of its time. In 1939, Renoir’s world was one on the brink of war. Czechoslovakia had already fallen to Hitler, and a pall hung over most of Europe as the world watched and waited. A war was dreadful—almost too dreadful—to contemplate. Some, like Renoir’s bourgeois characters vacationing at an isolated country estate, would hide their heads in the sand, concerned only with their own petty affairs and properties.

When The Rules of the Game debuted in February of that year, few films in history can be said to have been so instantly reviled. At its Paris premiere, the audience reportedly howled and hooted, throwing objects and the screen and shouting in derision. Renoir quickly cut 13 minutes from the film, but to no effect. Further cuts truncated the film from 113 minutes down to less than 90, but audiences found the remaining edit now confusing and still offensive. Within a few weeks, its opening run had ended in commercial disaster. Renoir soon left the country, like so many other European émigrés, fleeing to Hollywood to avoid working under the Nazi occupation, and The Rules of the Game was hardly seen. An Allied air raid in 1942 destroyed its negative.

With Renoir’s approval, in 1959 the film was restored from scraps and salvage to the 106 minutes extant in the Criterion edition today—a Director’s Cut, so to speak, though the term did not exist then. With the newly empowered critic-auteurs of the Nouvelle Vague firmly in Renoir’s corner, the film enjoyed something of a critical re-estimation. And for most of the latter part of the 20th century and continuing for two decades into the 21st, The Rules of the Game has remained among, at least according to Sight & Sound‘s decennial critics poll, The Greatest Films of All Time, polling at #4 in 2012 before falling to #13 in 2022.

Whatever its reputation at any given moment, Renoir’s style remains inimitable. Most of the chateau scenes are shot in long-take deep-focus, in which edits are few and compositions and movements complexly choreographed. Characters innocuously inhabiting the background subtly move forward as others exit; door-frames and mirrors create a labyrinth of connected rooms, hallways, entrances, and exits which allow and delimit the interactions of characters. A checkered-tile floor becomes a chessboard on which players attack and defend their positions. The chateau itself becomes a kind of character, keeping some from interacting with each other while throwing others into uncomfortable and unpredictable proximities.

Outside the chateau, the famous hunt scene provides a pivot on which the narrative action turns. If Renoir’s characters were “dancers on a volcano,” and here is where the volcano erupts. In most of the film, shots run for a minute or more. Here, in contrast, fifty-one shots appear in less than four minutes, the rhythm of cutting and movement culminating in a barrage of gunfire. Every character is in place, the laborers at work, the bourgeois guests at play, and the small game—rabbits, squirrel, pheasants—the prey. A longish take of 26 seconds follows Schumacher, the gameskeeper, and his crew, flushing the game.

And then, what had been cordial and comic turns quickly violent as in twenty-two shots—fifty-three seconds—twelve animals die, the camera sometimes lingering on their death throes. Once the hunt is over, conversation reappears—but the game of love is transformed into a dance of death, one that will follow once the guests return to the chateau. This hunt has changed the rules of the game.

Image from The Rules of the Game: A woman dressed for a hunt aims a rifle.

It might be no surprise that after this scene, the comedy of manners back at the de la Chesnaye mansion becomes more charged, even violent, leading to revelations and recriminations that will end in tragedy. The film’s restoration, occurring on the cusp of the Nouvelle Vague, the New Wave to which Renoir would become a godfather of sorts, led the film’s critical re-estimation as one of, if not the, greatest of all time.  A complete box-office failure in 1939, The Rules of the Game now ranks as one of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema, wholly deserving of the best resolution and packaging available.


The set of special features provided in this new 4K disc package is unchanged from the 2011 Blu-ray release. To those of you who already own the former, congratulations! You already possess one of the Criterion Collection’s more comprehensive editions, with a wide array of excellent supporting material to keep you entranced for hours. Should you upgrade? If you have a keen eye for detail, an excellent 4K disc player and projection system, and a real yen to rewatch this classic with nearly no signal noise or clutter, yes, without question. Otherwise, the 2011 Blu-ray version will likely suffice.

But if you do not possess either and wish to enjoy one of the cinema’s great films and one of the Criterion Collection’s best packages, you are missing out if you don’t add spine #216 to your physical media collection. Among the features from which I learned the most are Chris Faulkner’s scene analyses, David Thompson’s documentary, and the video essay on its release and reconstruction, but all of them are wholly worthwhile, and it is a pleasure to see the director onscreen speaking to his own film. All told, these features, not including the commentary track, will run nearly five hours’ worth of immersion into The Rules of the Game.

  • An Introduction to the Film by Jean Renoir. In French, with optional English subtitles, 7 minutes.
  • Playing by Different Rules. A comparative analysis of the film’s different versions of from film studies professor Chris Faulkner. In English, not subtitled, 14 minutes. including the ending of Renoir’s 1939 short version of the film in French, with optional English subtitles, 9 minutes.
  • Scene Analyses. Faulkner comments on two specific scenes from the film. In English, not subtitled: “Public and Private” (6 minutes) and “Corridor” (3 minutes).
  • Jean Renoir, Le Patron. Excerpts from a 1966 program, one of three Jacques Rivette created for French television, in which Jean Renoir discusses the production history and themes of The Rules of the Game. In French, with optional English subtitles, 32 minutes.
  • Jean Renoir, Part One. From critic David Thompson’s two-part BBC documentary Jean Renoir, the documentary includes interviews with Jean Renoir, directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Peter Bogdanovich, professor Alexander Sesonske, and others. In English and French, with optional English subtitles where necessary, 60 minutes.
  • Video Essay. Faulkner discusses the complex production history of The Rules of the Game. In English, not subtitled, 9 minutes.
  • Interview with Olivier Curchod. In French, with optional English subtitles, 28 min.
  • Interview with Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand. From a 1965 episode of the French television series Les écrans de la ville. In French, with optional English subtitles, 11 minutes.
  • Additional Interviews. Production designer Max Douy, actress Mila Parely (who plays Genevieve), and Jean Renoir’s son, Alain, who worked as an assistant cameraman, recall their experiences making The Rules of the Game. In French and English, with optional English subtitles where necessary. 10 minutes, 17 minutes, and 19 minutes, respectively.
  • Audio Commentary. Peter Bogdanovich reads a text written by film scholar and Renoir close friend Alexander Sesonske. (The same commentary appeared on the 2004 Criterion DVD release of the film as well as the 2011 Blu-ray.)
  • Booklet. The 48-page illustrated booklet features Alexander Sesonske’s essay “Everyone Has Their Reasons”; a synopsis for The Rules of the Game written by Jean Renoir; “Jean Renoir on The Rules of the Game”, reprinted from the French director’s autobiography My Life and My Films (1974); “Henri Cartier-Bresson Remembers”, reprinted from Jean Renoir: Letters (1994); “Director’s Cut”, an appreciation of The Rules of the Game written by director and critic Bertrand Tavernier; an excerpt from a letter Francois Truffaut wrote to Jean Renoir and a short passage from Truffaut’s 1981 memoir, The Films in My Life; and a collection of tributes from various writers and directors, including Alain Resnais, Amy Taubin, Wim Wenders, Robert Altman, Cameron Crowe, and others.


Disclosure: a complimentary disc was provided Film Obsessive for the purpose of this review.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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