Any personalized list of great films is bound to contain films we’ve watched so many times they’ve practically crawled into our DNA. The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir’s wry, ruefully affectionate look at the foibles of Parisian aristocrats on the eve of World War II, is so intimate and observant that its contours change dramatically every time you watch it. In this glorious ensemble escapade, perched halfway between comedy and tragedy, Marcel Dalio plays a flippant aristocrat obsessed with expensive mechanical novelties. Yet even so, his feelings for real people take precedence: he fears he’s losing his wife (Nora Gregor) to a dashing but earnest aviator (Roland Toutain). Renoir’s characters are shallow, selfish, and at times nearly unbearable. But he has such deep love for them that by the end of the film, we embrace them too. That’s not nearly the same as liking them: instead, suddenly, somehow, and perhaps against our better judgment, they belong to us. Renoir’s descendant François Truffaut said of The Rules of the Game that it’s so immediate, we almost feel as if we were there as it was being made: “For an instant, we think to ourselves, ‘I’ll come back tomorrow and see if it all turns out the same way.’” It does—and it doesn’t. That right there is the magic of it.
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