If you are reading this comment page, you will see only two (semi-) negative reviews (one of the two, this one, split up into two). They're both mine. Every other one calls The Rules of the Game one of the best films ever made. I saw it for the first time right around one year ago in a class in which we had already seen such masterpieces as L'Atalante, Quai des Brumes, and La Grande Illusion. All three are on my personal top 100 list. And I've seen other French films within a half-decade's or so radius that are nearly on my top 100 list - Le million, A nous la liberte, Children of Paradise, and Beauty and the Beast.
The Grand Illusion was the film we watched prior to this one, and I liked it quite a bit. I didn't quite think it was a masterpiece, but I had an inkling that the poor VHS quality may have been the fault. I bought the Criterion DVD, which was just recently printed from the master print that had been confiscated by Nazis and stored away in Berlin. Anyhow, even before I LOVED The Grand Illusion, I thought it was great. Then I saw Rules of the Game, and I was bewildered. What had happened to Renoir in the two years between Grand Illusion and this? I gave it a 7/10 on imdb, mostly because I did recognize Renoir's direction as being excellent (90% of the flaws are in the script, 0% in the direction or technical aspects; the final 10% can be found in the performances) and wrote a review in which my ultimate verdict was "weak-kneed." During the next class period, everyone was exclaiming how much they loved Rules of the Game. Had I missed something? I didn't admit so at the time, but, as I began to read more and more of how great people thought it was, my own confidence in my opinion began to falter. I had no real desire to see it once again, but I always felt that I should. When I began visiting movie message boards (the ones on imdb), I posed the question: "Why is Rules of the Game so great? I can't figure it out myself." A ton of people gave very helpful explanations, especially on how to look at the characters of Christine and Andre, both of whom I had found lame when I had first seen the film. Many proposed themes found here, but, really, there wasn't any particular theme proposed that I thought I had missed the first time around. I posted that discussion in June. Almost instantly, it appeared on TCM, which made it all feel like an omen. I taped it, but I still put off watching it. Now, four months later, a full year after I first saw it, I finally sat down and watched it again.
My verdict is almost exactly the same. The first time around, I handed it a low 7/10. Now, I raise it to the glorious height of a high 7/10. Little consolation to Rules of the Game fans. A 7/10 is a 7/10 on the imdb. So what has changed about my perception of the film? This time, Christine came off better. I called her a "zero-dimensional character" below, "who says 'I love you' to whichever man comes up to her arbitrarily" (not exact quotations, mind you). This time around, I sympathized with her much more. I see her as a stranger in a strange land who has been taken advantage of by La Chesnay (Maurice Dalio, whom I didn't recognize as Rosenthal from La Grande Illusion last time; that's actually referenced in this film, with specific reference to La Chesnay's Jewishness). She's kind, and she doesn't really know how to handle men, especially romantics like Andre.
SPOILERS: Everything else I said in my review stands. Andre is still a one-dimensional character with whom I really wish we could spend more time in order to understand him better. He's barely in the film, and his death has no impact whatsoever. Basically, the structure of the film is what is "weak-kneed." The first half or so is delicious, up until the masquerade. Everything becomes exceedingly ridiculous, not too bad, but Renoir is trying to be funny, as you can tell from Schumacher's Loony Toons-like pursuit of Marceau, the guests' reactions to the gunfire, Genevieve's drunken tantrum, and the fisticuffs between La Chesnay and Andre. I don't find any of it funny (and neither did that first audience with whom I watched it, although everyone claimed to love the film) and most of it I find hard to believe, especially Schumacher's behavior. I believe that he'd be insanely angry, but I don't buy that he goes about shooting randomly.
But it is especially in the final sequence, after most of the unimportant guests go to their rooms, that the narrative falls completely to pieces. I cannot think of a more contrived 30 minutes in all of filmdom. It's almost insulting. Okay, say that I accepted the wackiness of Schumacher's blasting away indoors. How the heck do I accept that he and Marceau are now fine with each other? This is Renoir's old notion that people who are in the same boat will naturally be amigos (the French and Chinese farmers paradigm). I buy this when we're talking about Marechal and Rosenthal, Marechal and Elsa, or Boedlieu and Rauffenstein in The Grand Illusion, but, when Schumacher has just been attempting to whack Marceau for the last hour, and ended up without wife or job on account of it, this man's going to want to whack his nemesis even harder when they get outside (at least Renoir has Marceau flinch when he sees Schumacher). I find it even less believable that Marceau would go along with the murder of Lisette's other love, since when did we ever see that he was the jealous or vengeful type? If Marceau had disappeared and Schumacher had acted alone, then I'd be a little more accepting.