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Blu-ray. Studio Canal

La Grande IllusionFresh 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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