Every great movie holds two similar distinctions: they appear fresh and modern, no matter when they were made, and they are almost always ahead of their time.

Of all of these movies, Jean Renoir’s seminal The Rules of the Game (Le règle du jeu) might be the most notorious of the bunch. When it opened in 1939, Rules of the Game caused such a commotion that audience members started fighting one another in the theater while one patron lit his newspaper on fire and tried to burn the place down. The movie was panned and slammed in the press, hacked from a 113-minute running time to 85 by the studio, and eventually banned by the French Government in October 1939 for “being depressing, morbid, immoral, [and] having an undesirable influence over the young.”

Then in 1956, original prints of the movie were discovered by Jean Gabarit and Jacques Marechal, and under the supervision of Renoir and Jacques Durand, Rules of the Game was restored to its full glory. The restoration was dedicated to Renoir’s greatest admirer, critic André Bazin, who died in 1958, and when the properly restored Rules of the Game played the 1959 Venice Film Festival, it was deemed a masterpiece.

Why was Rules of the Game so terribly hated in 1939 and so beloved 20 years later? Rules of the Game is a searing movie, one that mocks the upper-middle-class—depicting them as spoiled, love-sick little brats with money—and places the blame of the nearing war on their shoulders. Talking with Alexander Sesonske in 1980, Renoir noted that the society in Rules of the Game was “in the process of disintegration … the audience recognized this. The truth is that they recognized themselves. People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses.”

To depict that society, Renoir set the standard for the upstairs-downstairs comedy by filling his movie with romantic dalliances and hurt feelings, all masked by social manners and personal motivations. As Octave (played by Renoir himself) states in one of the movie’s most infamous scenes, “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”

Images courtesy The Criterion Collection.

The Rules of the Game opens with André (Roland Toutain) returning from a Trans-Atlantic solo flight. He lands in Paris, where the press and hoards of fans eagerly await his safe return. Of all the people there, the one who is not present is Christine (Nora Gregor), which Octave sadly informs him. André is heartbroken and immediately tells a nearby radio reporter that he did this for her, and she didn’t even bother to come. Of course, André protects Christine’s identity by not revealing her name, yet he chooses this public moment to shame her. This intersection of private and public is the first of many in Rules of the Game, a movie with no central character or concrete story. Instead, Renoir chooses to play his drama out on a grand stage (photographed in deep focus so that the audience can take in every aspect of every character) where all the players are aware that they are dancing on stage. What they aren’t aware of, to quote Renoir, is that they are “dancing on a volcano.”

After a series of prologues where Renoir introduces the major players, the scene shifts to Christine’s country château, La Colinière, in Sologne. Octave and André are invited, as is Christine’s boyfriend, Robert (Marcel Dalio), who is still in love with his mistress, Geneviève (Mila Parély), but trying to break it off. Robert invites Geneviève to the château as well, hoping that she and André will fall in love and solve everyone’s problem. They don’t, and the staff of the château further complicates the matters with their own affairs.

If any of this seems a little Downton Abbey-ish, it’s because Abbey scribe Julian Fellows also wrote the script for Robert Altman’s 2002 film Gosford Park, a movie that is practically in cahoots with Rules of the Game. Some movies are timeless, but great movies continue conversations long after the cameras stop rolling.

When Rules of the Game was released, Europe was on the brink of war, and Renoir’s mocking of the classes did not go over well. Nor did the infamous hunting sequence where party members cheerfully gun down rabbits and pheasants. Rapidly cutting back and forth between images of the party members and the fallen animals, a barrage of shotgun blasts on the soundtrack drive the message home. Real hunting was going on, only a few hundred miles away, and that allusion did not escape audiences then, and it still doesn’t today.

Rules of the Game is a masterpiece. It is one of the pillars upon which cinematic grammar was formed. By using deep focus, long shots, quick cuts, and a freely moving camera, Renoir transformed the medium into something completely different. It may not have been well received in 1939, but today, it is properly regarded and continues to shape and inspire the cinema of today and tomorrow.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Rules of the Game / La règle du jeu (1939)
Produced and Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: Jean Renoir & Carl Koch
Starring: Roland Toutain, Nora Gregor, Marcel Dalio, Jean Renoir, Mila Parély, Paulette Dubost, Lise Elina, Pierre Magnier
Nouvelles Éditions de Films, Not Rated, Running time 116 minutes.