La Grande Illusion (1937) review
War is helpful, in Renoir’s portrait of reluctant enemies in denial. A masterclass in irony – unless the director himself is as nice as his characters?
La Grande Illusion
(Jean Renoir, Fr, 1937)
The first thing that strikes you about La Grande Illusion is how nice it is. Despite being a prisoner of war movie, in which French soldiers do their duty to try and escape the clutches of the Hun, events are marked by cordiality and respect – a world where a German officer might shoot down his enemy, and then invite them for dinner by way of an apology.
Of course, the reality is somewhat difference, and Jean Renoir’s drama – if the title hasn’t given it away – is concerned with the gap between appearances and the stark truth of a war in which millions died in meaningless slaughter. Oblivious to this, the upper class officers bond over titles and etiquette and are put out whenever they remember that they are enemies. Yet the complexion of society is changing, and they know that national boundaries – not class – will become the defining divide of the 20th Century. When, at one point, the Frenchmen burst into a patriotic rendition of La Marseillaise, it’s a sign of things to come (not least because of its unmistakable influence on that classic of national allegiances, Casablanca).
This is irony at its purest, not funny exactly but laced with unspoken meaning. Just like Renoir’s La Regle Du Jeu, made two years later, La Grande Illusion takes a world of upper class manners and gives it just enough of a prod to make you realise what would happen if it was turned completely upside-down. The film is frequently shot and performed like farce, but only to make the tonal shifts more impactful. Renoir even includes a comedy-within-a-comedy as the prisoners perform a drag show, but because it’s such an obvious facsimile of reality, it symbolises the film as a whole. Just for a moment, everyone can pretend they’re in Paris trying to get laid – but then reality intrudes and the illusion is broken.
It’s a film that could only have been made at that precise moment in time, with an altogether less innocent war about to descend on Europe. Renoir sees it coming: he pointedly makes a major character Jewish, whose family has acquired wealth through hard work rather than birthright; and sets up a set-piece where Germans start burning books. These are familiar symbols to anybody living in the late 1930s, and cast an eerie foreshadowing over proceedings. But like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the awful extent of Nazism wasn’t yet known, and the film can still treat these moments with a lightness of touch, with the book-burning played for laughs and the Jewish prisoner never persecuted by his captors.
This was made before the clichés of the prison camp genre are in place; thank goodness, because Renoir couldn’t keep his camera locked into the claustrophobic positions that would become the genre’s default setting. Here’s a director who throws so much action into the frame, the actors engaged in a perpetual choreography of motion, that the camera has to be able to pan and track.
But he owes mostly to his cast. One-time Hollywood auteur Erich von Stroheim excels as the German officer, as rigid in body (thanks to a neck brace) as in mindset, who hates having to fight fellow aristocrats; along with Roger Livesey in The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, it’s one of the era’s great portraits of old-fashioned decency marooned by the tide of history. Elsewhere, Renoir uses many of his repertory company (it’s especially fun to see Julian Carette and Gaston Modot play friends here, when they spend most of La Regle Du Jeu locked in bitter rivalry). Meanwhile, star Jean Gabin, the doomed poetic-realist of French cinema, adds weary gravitas – he’s the only person who seems to know the truth, but is still too polite to point it out.
All of the above makes this sound superb – and of course La Grande Illusion has the reputation of being one of the undisputed masterpieces of cinema. Yet, for me, it’s a film to admire rather than love. The thematic weight builds to a crescendo during an impeccably staged escape attempt but, like so many prison movies, the narrative control required to tell a story behind bars dissipates with freedom. The film falters in its final third, in a briefly touching but ultimately overlong romantic subplot that suggests that love might transcend nationality and redeem the world.
It’s cute and idyllic, but soft; the product of a director whose sense of irony and anger simply can’t displace the warmth and generosity of his heart. That complexity and emotional texture is, for many, exactly why this film is regarded so highly, but that doesn’t stop the last act from saying things that are simply less interesting than what’s happened before. A misstep, then, but not a fatal one; Renoir rallies with a subtly satirical and surprisingly downbeat ending that suggests that people are safe only so long as war is played “fair.” In 1937, few Europeans were under any illusion about that.
A restored print of La Grande Illusion is out in cinemas on Friday 6th April, and released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 23rd April.
Tagged French Cinema