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'The Rules of the Game'

Tempers reach the boiling point at a high-class party in The Rules of the Game. Courtesy Criterion Collection hide caption

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Courtesy Criterion Collection

A bourgeoisie shooting party at a French chateau in a scene from The Rules of the Game. Courtesy Criterion Collection hide caption

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Courtesy Criterion Collection

Tempers flare in a scene from 'The Rules of the Game' Courtesy Criterion Collection hide caption

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Courtesy Criterion Collection

In one sense, The Rules of the Game is just another summer-house comedy with dark undercurrents — a genre taken up by Ingmar Bergman (Smiles of a Summer Night), Woody Allen (A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy), Robert Altman (A Wedding) and even Stephen Sondheim (A Little Night Music).

But the film, released in France in 1939, stands virtually alone as a remarkable intersection of cinematic vision, effective writing and dense meaning. It is routinely cited in international critic polls as one of the greatest films ever made, in the company of Citizen Kane and Vertigo.

Title: The Rules of the Game
Publisher: Criterion Collection
Format: Region 1 DVD (U.S. and Canada Only)
Release Date: Jan. 20, 2004
» Commentary/essay by Peter Bogdanovich
» Jean Renoir biography

Director Jean Renoir assembled his characters — a medley of high society and baleful servants, ensconced in a nouveau riche rural manse — and drawing on some classic French novels and even The Marriage of Figaro, mercilessly drew them into a dense assemblage of patterns and pairs.

Renoir filmed the result in a deceptively simple style. His use of deep focus and complex compositions effectively captured the ebb and flow of the characters' relations. The result was a compulsively watchable, darkly poetic look at a rotted-out society standing insecurely on the brink of the abyss of WWII.

Yet on its release, The Rules of the Game was hooted at by the bourgeoisie, dismissed by critics and even banned by the government for being, legend has it, "demoralizing" to a nation at war.

The two-disc The Rules of the Game package, a typically classy offering from the high-end DVD house Criterion Collection, brings the film into the 21st century. The commentary track is by Peter Bogdanovich, a penetrating scholar of film, one-time wunderkind director of The Last Picture Show and Sopranos character actor.

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All that said, it's strange to realize that his commentary here — a breathtaking, nearly two-hour essay, delivered as the film plays — was written not by Bogdanovich, but by another cinema scholar, Alexander Sesonske. Still, it makes an engrossing case for Renoir's extraordinary architecture.

On the second disc, there's a host of supporting material charting Renoir's colorful life — from his parentage (his father was the famed painter Auguste Renoir), through his military service in the WWI era (which took him successively through the French cavalry, army and air force), and finally to the film's calamitous reception in Paris. And don't miss the director's wry introduction to the film.

As for image and audio quality, the original negative was lost and the film was later reconstructed. That tangled history has unfortunately decreed that the picture and sound of the modern resurrection of The Rules of the Game, while more than adequate, will probably never be perfect.