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

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

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

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.