Saturday, January 29, 2011

Movie Review: GRAND ILLUSION (RAC/World Pictures Corporation, 1938)

 La Grande Illusion (1937) Poster

Reams of paper, gallons of ink, and, now, terabytes of computer space have been used to parse French director Jean Renoir's World War I masterpiece, which Nicky and I viewed this past week as a "Netflix-Streaming Instant Watch" while a snowstorm whirled outside. I don't have much more than deux additional sous to pitch in... I think that the critics who reflexively describe it as a "great antiwar statement" are missing the point. The film is far more of a pro-humanity statement than an antiwar indictment. No character or class is presented in a really harsh light, not even the cruel-looking commander (Erich von Stroheim) of the German prison fortress to which perpetual escapees Capt. de Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay), Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin), and Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) have been sent. Compare a movie like Titanic, in which class determines attitude with all the rigidity of a Kabuki drama. Renoir's film can be taken as an elegy for an entire way of life, in which aristocratic foes can converse with resigned dignity and "noblemen" can willingly risk their lives for others (as de Boldieu does when he contrives a plot to help his two lesser-born comrades get away) while still not quite understanding what makes them tick. There's plenty of sardonic Gallic humor and an unexpected love story that takes up the last half-hour or so without feeling "tacked on" to appease a particular demographic. The use of subtitles probably mandates multiple viewings to take everything in, but there's no question but that this belongs on the "short list" of the world's greatest films.

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