|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 23 November 1999|
Although the career of Jean Renoir was rocky and uneven, he wrote and directed a handful of the greatest movies of all time, 'Grand Illusion' being one of them. It is, in fact, occasionally listed as the best movie ever made, although most commentators do prefer Renoir's 'Rules of the Game,' made two years later.
Son of the great French impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, Jean originally intended to express his artistic nature through ceramics, but during World War I, where he served with distinction (and was wounded several times), he became fascinated by motion pictures. During the 1920s, he evolved from a dilettante, ready to return to ceramics at any time, to a serious filmmaker. His transition to sound was made exceptionally well; his early talkie 'Boudou Saved from Drowning' was already close to a masterpiece in 1932.
But tales he heard from a fellow WWI aviator led him to write, with Charles Spaak, the script that gradually became 'La Grande Illusion.' As with most of Renoir's films, the story is simple enough; it's the characters that bring the film into relief, and make it as compelling today as it was in 1937, when it was an international hit. The movie played first-run in New York for 26 weeks, and was praised by President Roosevelt.
It's generally viewed as an anti-war film; while Renoir certainly had that in mind, his approach is more graceful and thoughtful than the usual anti-war film. It is anything but a polemic; he stresses the common humanity of his characters rather than showing the horrors of war. In fact, there are no battle scenes at all; the first two-thirds of the film takes place in prison camps. The movie is often funny, and sometimes touching, but it's never obvious, never sentimental. As with all great directors, he allows his audiences to discover the emotional levels; he never insists upon them.
The great Jean Gabin plays Lt. Marechal, a skilled French flier who, with observer Captain de Boieldieu, is shot down behind enemy lines. (Off-screen; they couldn't afford to rent the planes.) Brusque but kindly Prussian Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim, in his best movie performance) greets them courteously, but cares little about Marechal, who comes from a much lower socio-economic class. Instead, he and Boieldieu are a match, instantly recognizing in each other their aristocratic backgrounds and ideals.
But Marechal and Boieldieu are taken to a prisoner of war camp. Life isn't too bad there, especially with people around like the generous Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a wealthy Jew whose family sends him packages full of food and drink.
There are British prisoners in the camp as well, and one of the most stirring, moving scenes in the film -- in any film -- comes when the Brits and the French get together to put on a show. An important French fort has fallen to the Germans, but during the show, it's learned the French have retaken it. Dressed in drag for the show, a British officer whips off his wig, and leads the prisoners in "La Marseillaise" as one by one they all join in. Peter Cowie's superb commentary track points out that surely Michael Curtiz saw this before he shot a similar scene for 'Casablanca.'
Time passes, and the French prisoners are sent from one camp to another; Marechal, Rosenthal and de Boieldieu finally end up in a remote castle atop a mountain. The commandant is none other than von Rauffenstein, who was severely wounded; he wears gloves to hide his scars, and a permanent neck brace. But he's even more formal than he was before, always dressing in a pristine, elaborate uniform. He's delighted to meet Boieldieu again.
One of Renoir's guiding principles was a belief -- probably accurate -- that society is really stratified horizontally, not vertically. That is, a dockworker from Marseilles would have much more in common with a dockworker from Sydney than either would with aristocrats from their own country. Boieldieu admires Marechal and Rosenthal, but he does not consider himself one with them; he is always formal, always polite, but always distant. (For those who speak French: he refers to Marechal, whom he likes, only as "vous," never "tu.")
But he is a man of great honor and courage; you'll have to see this great movie to know why one of the most deeply moving scenes in a film with many of them is a simple shot of de Boieldieu donning a pair of white gloves; at once, it's a symbol of defiance, an act of courage, an assertion of dignity, and a claiming of social position. (This is in Chapter 13.)
With flutes, then a single flute, the film reaches its first important emotional climax. Marechal and Rosenthal escape, and take refuge with a German farm woman who's weary of war -- all the men in her family, including her husband have died in combat.
The title has broad application (and really should have been rendered as "the great illusion"). War itself is an illusion; it rarely settles anything, and courage is wasted in it. Class divisions are also a kind of illusion, but they're hard to evade. In the last sequence, perhaps Renoir is suggesting that even love is an illusion.
The unusual history of this movie is told in detail, including the recent restoration process, demonstrated by comparison before-and-after clips. The narration track by Peter Cowie, recorded in 1987 for the laserdisc release, is thoughtful and as unpretentious and accessible as the movie itself.
The restoration also restored the soundtrack. Yes, it's a 1937 movie, and so it's not in thundering stereo, but the clarity of the sound is remarkable; you can hear each drum beat in Joseph Kosma's spare but excellent score. At several points, Renoir employs offscreen sounds, usually slowly building, to great effect. In Chapter 7, for example, the sound of marching feet underscores a prison camp scene. In Chapter 13, the prisoners create a diversion by means of flutes and by banging pots and pans when the flutes are confiscated. Then de Boieldieu plays a melody on one last remaining flute -- a song that later reunites Marechal and Rosenthal after a quarrel. This DVD is as good as anything the Criterion company has ever done, and that's major praise; they're among the finest companies for home video working today.
Don't watch 'Grand Illusion' because you think it's somehow good for you; watch it because it's a great, entertaining, involving movie. Renoir draws you in very deeply; his style is simple but eloquent, using moving cameras and deep focus very expressively. And yet it's one of those movies that looks like it has no specific style. Watch it by yourself, on a quiet evening; the mood of the film will capture you, and you'll be drawn in by the characters. This is a great movie, one of the best ever made.
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Boudou Saved from Drowning, Rules of the Game, Paths of Glory