REVIEW: DVD Release: Le Grand Jeu























Film: Le Grand Jeu
Release date: 21st June 2010
Certificate: PG
Running time: 110 mins
Director: Jacques Feyder
Starring: Marie Bell, Pierre Richard-Willm, Charles Vanel, Camille Bert
Genre: Drama/Romance
Studio: Eureka
Format: DVD
Country: France

Director Jacques Feyder’s 1934 romantic drama is regarded as an early classic of poetic realism and a landmark film in French cinema.

Wealthy and carefree Parisian businessman Pierre Martel (Pierre Richard-Willm) is fond of the high life, but perhaps not quite as fond of it as his flighty lover Florence (Marie Bell).

Their flamboyant life together comes crashing down when his extravagant ways catch up with him, and he is forced by his family to leave the country as a payoff for honouring his debts. Pierre had hoped that Florence would stand by him in his time of need, but it is immediately apparent that she has no taste for a life without luxury.

Picking himself up as best he can, Pierre joins the French Foreign Legion and winds up in Morocco along with assorted other social outcasts and misfits. Life is hard, and Pierre is clearly not suited to the new life he finds himself lumbered with, but one night during a break from service he encounters Irma (also played by Marie Bell), a melancholic singer and prostitute who is the spitting image of Florence, though unlike the blonde Florence, she has dark hair and a different voice.

Pierre strikes up a turbulent relationship with Irma, and arranges for her to work at a hotel where he lodges when he is on breaks from the Foreign Legion. The hotel, run by the world-weary Blanche (Fran├žoise Rosay) and her boorish husband Clement (Charles Vanel) is a bit of a tip, but, for a while at least, it is something of a haven for the two lovers.

After discovering that Irma had been in an accident that affected her memory, Pierre becomes obsessed with the idea that she may actually be his former love Florence. But just when it looks as though things may work out for Pierre and Irma, there is a cruel twist in the tale…


While there are aspects of Le Grand Jeu that are not all that convincing, not least the mannered performances of the two leads, its story of doomed love and obsessive behaviour in a colonial outpost is still intriguing. From the first moment he sees her, Pierre is infatuated by Irma, but divided by irrational feelings of betrayal that arise from his almost wilful confusion of her with Florence. There are moments when Feyder toys with the possibility that Irma may in fact be Florence, but given the film’s conclusion these are not always well judged.

The characters of Blanche and Clement, however, are wonderfully sketched, and give the film a gritty undercurrent that threatens to dissolve any possibility of romantic redemption. Blanche is like some long faded diva, kicked in the teeth by life and worn down by her husband’s sneering and lecherous behaviour, but also well-meaning and clinging on to a sense of style and mystery. Clement is a grotesque specimen of a man who oozes seediness and depravity with every movement and word. In one standout scene, Clement hungrily ogles Irma while she takes down and replaces flypaper. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to picture Clement as a strip of human flypaper waiting to trap Irma (the fly) in his sticky, poisonous grasp.

The cinematography is also noteworthy; particularly the interior scenes in which deep shadows and dramatic highlights show the power of black-and-white. Apparently Feyder took his cast and crew to Morocco to shoot on location, but was blocked by the Foreign Legion and had to shoot certain scenes as though he were making a documentary. Though this meant he wasn’t able to control the filming as closely as he would have liked, it adds to the film’s realism, and the sense of Europeans adrift in an exotic destination.

In essence, Le Grand Jeu is the story of a man who had it all, lost it and then, when given the chance of redemption, allowed his past and his own personal demons to cloud his judgement. Pierre’s fatal error, if it is one, is not to see a lucky break when it’s staring him in the face.



In the late-20s and early-30s, Jacques Feyder flirted with Hollywood, where he worked with screen legend Greta Garbo, but it’s the films he made after abandoning the US and returning to France for which he is best remembered. Le Grand Jeu, the first of these films, deserves to seal his reputation as one of the pioneers of poetic realism. JG


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