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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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

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.