A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)

Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim in Grand Illusion
Maréchal: Jean Gabin
Boeldieu: Pierre Fresnay
Rauffenstein: Erich von Stroheim
Rosenthal: Marcel Dalio
Elsa: Dita Parlo
Cartier: Julien Carette
An Engineer: Gaston Modot
A Teacher: Jean Dasté

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir
Cinematography: Christian Matras
Production design: Eugène Lourié
Music: Joseph Kosma

I have to confess that when I first saw Grand Illusion a long, long time ago, I didn't get what the fuss was about. Why was this mildly amusing prison-escape movie considered one of the greatest films of all time? I mean, I got the general idea: That people are the same everywhere and that what divides us more than nationality is class. But where was the action? Why was there so little suspense? Why don't we get the raucous humor of Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953) or the heroics of Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963)? All of which is to say that our expectations have been so shaped by Hollywood to the point that it's difficult for the casual filmgoer to fully appreciate the subtlety of Jean Renoir's treatment of a story about which we have so many preconceptions. The greatness of Grand Illusion consists in Renoir's understanding of people and in his cast's dedication to bringing depth to the roles they are playing. To expect Grand Illusion to give us the full Hollywood measure of laughter, thrills and tears is like expecting War and Peace to stop teaching us history and concentrate entirely on the love life of Natasha Rostova. Like a great novel, Grand Illusion is designed to be savored and reflected upon, not to be watched and swiftly forgotten. The rapport between enemies, i.e., Boeldieu and Rauffenstein, and the tension between allies, i.e., Maréchal and Rosenthal, is what the film is about, and not Boeldieu's self-sacrifice and Rauffenstein's pomposity. It's also why we don't have closure on the stories of Maréchal and Rosenthal: Do they survive the war? Does Maréchal return to Elsa? Does Rosenthal become a victim of the Nazis? It's only because they have become such real characters to us that we even feel a twinge of frustration at not knowing those things. Hence the irony of the film's title. Hollywood gave us illusions. Renoir is determined to let us see the realities behind them.

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