Roger Ebertde Chicago Sun Times
The movie takes the superficial form of a country house farce, at which wives and husbands, lovers and adulterers, masters and servants, sneak down hallways, pop up in each other's bedrooms and pretend that they are all proper representatives of a well-ordered society. Robert Altman, who once said "I learned the rules of the game from 'The Rules of the Game,'" was not a million miles off from this plot with his "Gosford Park" -- right down to the murder. But there is a subterranean level in Renoir's film that was risky and relevant when it was made and released in 1939. It was clear that Europe was going to war. In France, left-wing Popular Front members like Renoir were clashing with Nazi sympathizers. Renoir's portrait of the French ruling class shows them as silly adulterous twits, with the working classes emulating them within their more limited means. His film opens with a great national hero, the aviator Andre Jurieu, completing a heroic trans-Atlantic solo flight (only 10 years after Lindbergh) and then whining on the radio because the woman he loves did not come to the airport to meet him. Worse, the characters in the movie who do try to play by the rules are a Jewish aristocrat, a cuckolded gamekeeper, and the embarrassing aviator. This did not go over well with French audiences on the eve of war. The film is preceded by a little introduction by jolly, plump Renoir, looking like an elderly version of the cherub so often painted by his father Auguste. He recalls that a man set fire to his newspaper at the movie's premiere, trying to burn the theater down. Audiences streamed out, the reviews were savage, and the film was a disaster, even before it was banned by the occupying Nazis. The French like to be funny, but they do not much like to be made fun of. "We were dancing on a volcano," Renoir says.