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With: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio, Julien Carette
Written by: Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak
Directed by: Jean Renoir
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 114
Date: 27/08/1999

La Grande Illusion (1937)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Care Packages

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The original camera negative was used for the re-release of Jean Renoir's masterful La Grand Illusion (1937). That's the actual film that was loaded into Renoir's camera and exposed by him in front of his actors in 1937. That this negative still exists, much less is in usable shape, is a small miracle. The result is a pristine and sparkling new print of a major classic now available on a beautiful Criterion DVD.

La Grand Illusion -- which has always been mistranslated as "Grand Illusion" rather than "The Big Illusion" -- tells a tale of World War I, but one without any battles. In fact, it's less a tale of the horrors of war than a tale of the battles between the classes. The movie is told through a series of episodes (supposedly based on true stories told to Renoir by a World War I prison camp survivor). A French Lieutenant (Jean Gabin) and a Captain (Pierre Fresnay) are thrown into a prison camp, but they get preferential treatment because they are officers.

Their fellow prisoner is a wealthy Jewish couturier (Marcel Dalio) who is allowed to receive "care packages" full of good food from family and friends. During the nights, the prisoners slowly dig a tunnel to freedom (forshadowing 1963's The Great Escape). But, before they can break out, they're transferred to an escape-proof castle run by a bizarre German Captain played by the great Erich Von Stroheim. Bonded by their high ranks, the German and French Captains hit it off, despite the fact that neither of them speak a fluent common language. Meanwhile, the Lieutenant and the couturier make their escape and head for the Swiss border on foot.

That's only the bare outline of the plot. There are key moments that round out this complex but simple movie that I won't give away. The movie is very much about human relationships and the roles that individuals play in them -- specifically what each participant can bring to the relationship. The Lieutenant is friends with the high-ranking Captain and can get just about anything he wants in prison. But when he escapes he chooses as his partner the wealthy man, who will have more power outside of prison.

Yet, it's Von Stroheim who is the most fascinating and heartbreaking of these rich characters. He looks slightly robotic with his steel back and neck brace, his white gloves covering battle burns, and his famous monocle. He keeps a geranium in his quarters. He regrets having been wounded in battle but not dying and longs for battle again. And he realizes that there is no place for him in the world except as a watchdog for prisoners.

Renoir is one of the most difficult directors for young film buffs to explore. He has no real visual motif (even though he achieves visual perfection), nor does he prefer a consistent genre. His true artistry was in his extraordinary balance. He could bring life and emotion to trite and hackneyed stories, and he could tone down stories that might otherwise have been drippy and over-the-top. The true test is to imagine La Grand Illusion filmed by Capra or Spielberg and picture how unbearably sappy the result would have been compared to Renoir's sobering and moving work.

La Grand Illusion is not actually considered Renoir's ultimate masterpiece -- The Rules of the Game (1939) features a richer canvas -- but it's a marvelous introduction to the work of one of the top masters of the cinema.

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