Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Grand Illusion

aka La Grande Illusion
Jean Renoir, 1937, France, bw (8.9*)

I’ve often searched for the greatest classic French film, and I’ve often been disappointed, that is, until I saw Grand Illusion again for the first time in over 40 years. Most critics place Renoir’s Rules of the Game near the top of their lists (it’s #3 on the 1000 list, Illusion is #26, they are 1 and 10 for foreign language films), but like Roger Ebert, Rules of the Game I just don’t get, but I get Grand Illusion. This is probably the first great prisoner escape film, and along with All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the great anti-war films that preceded WWII.

This is a beautifully shot film about French prisoners during World War I being held by German officers in a tall, forbidding medieval castle. Career officers played by Erich von Stroheim, a German with a broken back now in a brace and relegated to prison warden duty, and a Frenchman played by Pierre Fresnay, are actually civil and gentlemanly toward each other, and symbolize the last of a dying breed of soldier: those born into families of career soldiers who continue the tradition. The others are common men, officers due to ability and necessity, and features Jean Gabin in his best role as a non-aristocratic everyman soldier, who, no matter how well treated they are, still plans an escape, as its their duty.

Without giving way too much, this has some eloquent statements about compassion, survival, heroism, and humanity in the midst of a brutal and senseless world war. The grand illusion, of course, is that war is not glory and bravery, but a useless waste of humankind, each one of which leaves behind a family and friends. There is one event between the two career officers that I did not understand, that didn’t seem true to their characters, and its an integral point in the plot so I can’t spoil it - that’s why this gets a 9 and not a 10. This was the first foreign language film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar®.

Note: I think I still prefer Jean de Florette/Manon des Source as my favorite French movie, although technically it's two separate films, but its both halves of one novel and really should be watched together.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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