Gilbey on Film: Five things I love about La Grande Illusion

Here's why you need to see Jean Renoir's 1938 classic.

La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir’s sublime 1938 masterpiece about spirit, class and camaraderie in a German POW camp in the First World War, is out in cinemas now in a restored print; it reaches DVD on 23 April. This is a movie that does not want for admirers. Woody Allen counts it as one of his eight favourite films (in case you’re curious, the others are: Bicycle Thieves, The 400 Blows, The Hill, Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and a second Renoir, The Rules of the Game). The late Pauline Kael, interviewed in May 2000 by the director Michael Almereyda for a still-unmade film essay about Renoir, said:

The first Renoir picture I ever saw was Grand Illusion, which was probably the greatest picture I’d ever seen. I was in San Francisco, and it didn’t play in art houses; it played in regular theatres and it got a huge response. It is a movie that people don’t have to be movie specialists to enjoy. I think that The Rules of the Game, which is certainly a great film, could never reach the wide audience that Grand Illusion did in the 1930s when I first saw it. It has an immediacy, and you understand everything in it, whereas The Rules of the Game has a kind of mad capriciousness; the pulse in The Rules of the Game is different—it isn’t as naturalistic—and Grand Illusion was simply a heavenly experience for people who hadn’t seen much in the way of European films. But even if we had, there was nothing comparable to it.

You can read the full text of this interview, which Almereyda planned to use as his documentary’s narration, in Projections 13 (Faber). But Kael is right: it’s one of those films that you can confidently show to a friend, prefacing it with the words “You will adore this” without fear of being contradicted.

In addition to its accessibility, here are a further Five Things I Love About La Grande Illusion:

Jean Gabin

Ahead of the forthcoming Jean Gabin season at the BFI Southbank, you can marvel here at the subtlety and strength of French cinema’s brute poet. As Lieutenant Maréchal, an unpretentious, working-class officer holed up in the POW camp, he had a way of bringing the simplicity and beauty of a sonnet to his every grunted line; his eyes sparkled in his rough-hewn mug like diamonds in a sack of spuds. From raucous humour and stir-crazy intensity through to the unembarrassed tenderness of the final scenes, Gabin was as dexterous as they come. I like the way Maréchal twice reaches for the sentimental during intimate conversations with a colleague or a lover, only to have his declaration cut short by the intended object of his compliment. That feels like a comment on all the softness beneath Gabin’s own sandpaper exterior.

The Framing

Any director wishing to frame a group of actors in a shot needs to look at Renoir in general, and La Grande Illusion in particular. Faces crowded in a window, men huddled together on an allotment to empty out surreptitiously the sacks of dirt from the previous evening’s tunnel-digging, or gathered around a costume box inspecting the delicate female clothing that is the closest any of them can get to an actual woman. All these scenes and shots demonstrate Renoir’s uncanny ability to frame action in a way that expresses his characters’ camaraderie while providing compositions upon which the eye can feast.

The Music

The urgent military tempo of Joseph Kosma’s main title music is echoed later in the film when Maréchal remarks of the sounds emanating from his captors’ parade ground: “It’s not the music that gets to you. It’s the marching feet.” Music is soaked into the picture. Musical instruments play a key part in the action—bugles, a harmonica, flutes and a cacophonous improvised orchestra of clanging pots, pans and plates. An early emotional peak comes when the prisoners burst into a rendition of “La Marseillaise” to celebrate the recapturing of Fort Douaumont by French forces.

A Great Director Before, As Well As Behind, The Camera

I have a personal love of directors who act, and one of the finest was Erich von Stroheim. To be fair, he was an actor before he was a filmmaker—but now that history knows him best as the director of Greed, it is understandable that we should think of acting as his supplementary career. He is devastatingly emphatic as Captain von Rauffenstein, who clings fast to the old certainties of class, breeding and etiquette as the world crumbles around him. Von Stroheim’s moments of greatness in La Grande Illusion are too numerous to list, so I will single out two. First, the way his whole upper body tilts backwards suddenly whenever he swigs his brandy. Second, the torture, played out on his agonised face, as he is called upon to fire on a man he considers a friend and an equal, albeit one fighting for the enemy.

The Final Shot (No Spoilers)

The most quietly magnificent use of snow in cinema.

"La Grande Illusion" is in cinemas now.

 

Jean Gabin, star of La Grande Illusion, in 1975. Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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In defence of the BBC Front Row presenters who don’t like theatre

Giles Coren, Amol Rajan and Nikki Bedi of the new BBC Two arts show are getting stick for not being playgoers.

When I heard last month that BBC Radio 4’s Front Row will be expanded to a TV slot on BBC Two, I was a bit unsure about its presenters. The restaurant grouch Giles Coren and the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan – both respected commentators but on completely different subjects – didn’t feel the same as the radio version’s current hosts (though The Arts Hour and Loose Ends radio journalist Nikki Bedi made more sense).

Now, all three presenters have given an interview to the Radio Times, picked up by the Telegraph, in which they lay into theatre as an art form.

Coren revealed he hadn’t been to the theatre much in the past seven years, due to parenting duties – and also his stress over the idea that the actors would forget their lines. He believes it “has to be such a good production” for modern audiences to suspend their disbelief, and also complained about the seats:

“In the theatre they’re all so uncomfortable and old, and it feels like they’re trying to throw you out. I’d also like easier access to the loo.”

His co-presenters also didn’t seem particularly enthused. Bedi admitted, “I resent going to the theatre and not having an interval for two hours and 45 minutes. I want more intervals”, adding that she prefers film, and “tight, fast-paced, creative theatre that moves away from tradition”.

Rajan also mentioned that being a father makes it difficult to go (he has a young baby), but he saw the musical Dreamgirls last week and the School of Rock musical two years ago. He added that his favourite place is the Globe, which only seemed to rile the theatre world more.

The Telegraph’s theatre critic Dominic Cavendish seethed:

“What is the BBC doing, given the world-envied pre-eminence of our theatre culture, handing over the invaluable job of informing the TV-viewing public about what’s on stage, what's good, what's not and why, to a Come Dine With Me melange of lightweights who between them seem to have quite liked going to Shakespeare’s Globe and School of Rock IN NEW YORK!”

The playwright Dan Rebellato tweeted:

“Imagine if BBC’s art critics said novels were ‘too long’ or poetry ’too difficult’ or classical music ‘too boring’. Fucking OUTRAGEOUS.”

The editor of The Stage Alistair Smith added:

“It’s great the BBC is putting arts and theatre coverage front and centre, but I’m sure the industry will be hoping it will include some slightly more incisive criticism than ‘the seats are uncomfortable and there aren’t enough loos’.”

But many theatre fans (including this one) won’t feel outraged by the presenters’ comments. Even the theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage Mark Shenton admitted that, “yes, these matters sometimes vex professional theatregoers too – I routinely go to the theatre six or seven times a week – but the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences and irritation.”

The first layer of outrage was at the presenters’ focus on practicality: Coren’s comments about the uncomfortable seats and sparse loos, and Bedi’s complaint about duration and lack of intervals. Yes, it might seem banal, but it’s true.

In those old Victorian theatres, try being above average height, below average height, having a disability, elderly, or with children. And for any production, try being someone who works early morning shifts or night shifts. Most mainstream theatre is pretty impractical – both timewise and seating-wise – and that makes it pretty inaccessible to lots of people. Maybe not to BBC presenters, but the programme is for the public, not just for their fellow journos who get press tickets and seats in the stalls.

Then the second, far worse, layer of outrage focused on Rajan’s comments. “The Globe!” The theatre world giggled. “Musicals!” It corpsed some more. This is nothing but snobbery. As if Shakespeare’s Globe is too obvious and musicals are too low-brow to be critiqued on, uh, an entertainment show. But then they can’t stomach Bedi’s enthusiasm for more avant-garde pieces. So which is it?

If the presenters’ comments give away a little too much about their attitude to the arts, the theatre world’s response says far worse about its own.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.