from a theatrical re-release, Jean Renoir’s La Grande
Illusion comes to Blu-ray in the latest of several restorations,
looking wonderful and proving to still be essential cinema.
Set during the First World War, most of the film takes place within
German Prisoner of War camps, where we first meet aristocratic
Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Marechal (Jean
Gabin), who have been shot down by the equally aristocratic Von
Rauffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim). This opening scene –
the Germans treating their captives with politeness and decency,
the two members of old families finding they have far more in
common with each other than with their other countrymen and military
colleagues – sets the scene for a film that is more about
class divisions and the changing face of society and war than
anything else. As the two Frenchmen are sent to a variety of Officer
Class prisons, from which escape attempts are seen as both your
duty and a way of keeping occupied, Marechal increasingly bounds
with others, most notably Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio)
while de Boeldieu remains distant, having more in common with
his supposed captor Von Rauffenstein, who both know that the war
means the end of the social order that they have been used to,
no matter which side wins.
Set during a war that was, for too many people, still seen as
the sort of grand adventure that the upper classes had always
viewed warfare as, and made on the eve of the war that would change
all the cosy rules forever, La Grande Illusion
is at once a cosy look back at a time when warring sides could
still behave like ‘gentlemen’ and a warning that those
days are long gone. With Von Stroheim’s subtle but obvious
anti-semitic attitudes when referring to Rosenthal, the hints
of the Nazi era to come are clearly there (no surprise that the
Nazis hated this film), yet Renoir sensibly avoids trying to portray
the Germans as monsters – here, the war hasn’t robbed
those taking part of their humanity in the way it would over the
next few years.
The film hasn’t aged flawlessly – some of the performances
and the dialogue feel a bit stiff, and seen in retrospect, the
almost holiday-camp feel of the prisons seem a little unconvincing.
But the film is beautifully crafted, and as the story progresses,
manages to pack quite an emotional punch, particularly in the
final act. If you come to it weighed down with the expectations
of critical plaudits, you might feel a little let down –
like most great films, it can never quite live up to its own reputation.
But there’s no denying that this is a masterpiece of filmmaking,
even if the actual story no longer packs the punch it once did.
Definitely a must-see movie, and Studio Canal’s new edition
is pretty thorough for a film this old, with several featurettes
looking at the controversy behind the film, its history, the restoration
and more, alongside Renoir’s short silent film La
Petite Marchande d’Allumettes from 1928.
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