REVIEW: DVD Release: La Grande Illusion

Film: La Grande Illusion
Release date: 13th November 2006
Certificate: U
Running time: 108 mins
Director: Jean Renoir
Starring: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Julien Carette
Genre: Drama/War
Studio: Optimum
Format: DVD
Country: France

La Grande Illusion is Renior’s 1937 satirical WWI prison drama that follows a band of prison escapologists as they attempt to escape from Wintersborn, an apparently inescapable prison. The film runs deeper than the Nazi party would allow, and was subsequently declared “Cinematographic Enemy Number One” by them after it won acclaim and prizes at the Venice Film Festival.

The film follows three French Prisoners of War during World War I and their persistent attempts to escape from prison-to-prison, for no reason other than their own amusement.

It begins with two aviators, Lieutenant Maréchal and Captain de Boeldieu (Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay) being sent to a prison camp, during which they meet a band of people, all of whom share a common interest: escaping.

During their time there, they are transferred to another prison, Wintersborn. Whilst at Wintersborn, they meet another of their previous inmates, Rosenthal (played by Marcel Dalio), and together they hatch another plan to escape.

Erich Von Stroheim plays Captain von Rauffenstein, the German prison warden, who shares the same acquaintances and philosophical perceptions of society as Boeldieu…

Renoir’s films often speak for themselves, but what is so fascinating about this film is its humanity, its poise and, above all, its sheer dignity when tackling such a grand subject. The approach it has to telling a story about prisoners of war is refreshing, something which is rare in cinema at the best of times, but for a film to still be so powerful over seventy years after its initial release is truly remarkable.

When watching, it is hardly surprising that the Nazi party despised it so much, for the way in which it portrays war and prison it does so mostly with a sense of humour. These prisoners don’t seem to do anything other than have a good time, and a weighty section of the initial half of the film is dedicated to the prisoners organising and performing a stage show of their own creation. Discipline and actual imprisonment takes a huge backseat, and so, at times, you almost forget that they are prisoners – the sets, decor and atmosphere are constructed so that it feels more like a holiday camp. This, of course, is another of the film’s swipes at German regime, and is entirely intentional. The German authority itself is also so flaccid and weak that they can hardly be called guards at all. The character that perhaps defines this the most is Rauffenstein, whom not only is directly mirrored and equal to Boledieu, but is also genuinely likeable. At times, he even seems to sympathise with the French characters, and yearns to have the same desires they have. This use of satire still cuts close to the bone, however, at times, it feels a little too direct and obvious. Perhaps – and this is only with a retrospective eye that we can determine this – it is a little tired and overused. Having said that, though, this is a very minor negative criticism.

Cinematic dimensions, such as lighting, performance, score and editing are all as praise-worthy and well-executed, but they are dwarfed by Renoir’s use of framing, camerawork, and his ability to control the camera. He seems to waste nothing when shooting his subjects; each ounce, corner, dimension and even plane is used to create a world that leaves the screen and enters our own. The scene, for example, when Boeldieu serves as a distraction, so his counterparts may escape, is extremely well created and delivered that you cannot take your eyes off the screen - its beauty is shone through its simplicity and effectiveness. There are only a handful of directors who are able to achieve this.

Perhaps the film’s only other negative criticism is its lack of drama, as although it is present and effective, it is too sparse - coming as a shock rather than tension. Within the context of comedy and satire, it thus becomes quite disjointing and uncomfortable. If drama and tension had been peppered throughout, rather than occasional and aggressive, it might have been a much more effective film. However, the comedy and satirical qualities might have sagged rather than been as crucial as they are. Perhaps cynicism isn’t the best approach to this; its intentions might have been mistaken, and its dramatic veins were designed to be more powerful than has been interpreted here.

La Grande Illusion is a very fine film; it is well presented, superbly well made with the acting being spot-on every step of the way. If you haven’t discovered the magic of Jean Renoir yet, this is a good place to start. JW

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