Friday, April 09, 2010

Grand Illusion (1937)

La grande illusion, France, 114 minutes
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir
Photography: Christian Matras
Cast: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Julien Carette, Georges Peclet, Werner Florian, Jean Daste, Sylvain Itkine, Gaston Modot, Marcel Dalio

Amazing stuff, this, which by and large escaped me on my first viewing of it in a college film class. Not sure why—maybe I was tired that day? It's first a fine war movie, told from the point of view of a practical pacifism, nothing much political about it—anti-war but only by virtue of its whole-hearted embrace of life (and despite the fact that World War I is the one that can make anybody anti-war). The narrative is spirited and free-wheeling, multilingual in fascinating rhythms, telling the story of the capture and eventual escape of two French officers in World War I. The humanity that the two sides show one another, alongside the implied cruelties, are often surprising, even startling. Erich von Stroheim's performance as a punctiliously civilized German officer is notable in that regard. The settings and camera are both as restless as the story itself, which spans a continent and multiple class systems, all thrown into a discombobulating explosion of continual motion. My favorite scene emerges out of a love affair that occurs between Jean Gabin's Lt. Marechal and Elisa the farm woman (played by Dita Parlo) when the escaped soldiers are forced to hide in her home for several days during the December holiday season. On Christmas morning, she uses awkward German to shyly offer Capt. de Boeldieu (played by Pierre Fresnay) a cup of coffee with cream. It somehow signifies everything that has happened between her and Marechal, and the sad fleetingness of it, and it's an enormously touching moment. Then the soldiers must be off again, making for the Austrian border. An absolutely gorgeous final shot follows shortly to end this stirring and beautiful movie.

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