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The Big Movie: 'The Rules of the Game' (NR)

Weekend!Movies: In this game, the viewer is the big winner
by: Courtesy of Janus Films, Aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain, left) is among the guests at a weekend in the country at the home of the Marquis (Marcel Dalio) in “The Rules of the Game,” Jean Renoir’s layered, long-banned look at French society.

Though time has worn very little on Jean Renoir's 1939 classic 'The Rules of the Game,' the years have been rather less kind to those who wish to see it.

A financial disaster when it originally opened in France, it was quickly withdrawn from circulation, branded 'demoralizing' to the nation, heavily re-edited, and then banned under the Nazi occupation.

It wasn't until the late '50s that the original version began to reappear, leading to its inclusion in most any poll taken since then of all-time great films (though some still prefer Renoir's 'The Grand Illusion').

But even when audiences got the chance to see the whole movie, they often had to squint at 16 mm prints so murky that the experience resembled a foggy night at the drive-in.

Thankfully, the forecast is sunny for audiences at the Cinema 21, where a restored 35 mm print allows viewers to see Renoir's masterpiece with the same kind of clarity that Renoir brings to his vision of the human comedy.

The film is set on the eve of World War II at the lavish country estate of the Marquis de la Cheyniest and his wife (Marcel Dalio and Nora Gregor).

The guests include a celebrated aviator as well as the Marquis' mistress, assorted aristocrats, and most notably Renoir himself as the rumpled bon vivant Octave, who has made a career of being good company.

As Octave bounces about with garrulous aplomb, Renoir takes in the whole of the household from the lord of the manor to the hired help as they bend, break, adapt and circumvent the rules to make a shambles of love, friendship, marriage and loyalty.

Events are such that, during one particularly chaotic moment, the Marquis tells a servant to 'Put an end to this farce!' and the servant replies 'Which one?'

Renoir is a shrewd but never judgmental observer, and the fluid grace with which he traverses so many points on the emotional compass has gained the admiration of filmmakers for decades.

Look, for instance, to Robert Altman's 'Gosford Park,' or listen to how Renoir's defining line - 'Everyone has their reasons' - is echoed in Woody Allen's 'Husbands and Wives' as 'the heart wants what it wants.'

Still, nobody has surpassed the deftness of this frolic on the brink of the abyss. Darkness insinuates itself through the gaiety and foolishness to finally wrap the proceedings in melancholy. But even then Renoir's typical generosity of spirit and bittersweet wisdom lend a twilight beauty to the conclusion.

In fact, human complexities aside, the rules of this 'Game' are simple: Just see the film and you're a winner.

- Pat Holmes

Cinema 21