Directed by Jean Renoir with a script co-written with Charles Spaak. Le Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion) tells the story of French POWs in World War I plotting an escape from prison while dealing with class issues among its soldier and officers. Along the way, they are under the watch of an aristocratic German officer whom one of the officers become friends with. A part-war film but also part commentary on social classes and races, it is considered to be one of Renoir’s finest work. Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Dita Parlo, Marcel Dalio, and Erich von Stroheim. Le Grande Illusion is a remarkable yet captivating film from Jean Renoir.
After being shot by a German plane, two French officers in Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) are accompanied to meet Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), who was the man that shot their plane down. Eventually sent to a POW camp, de Boeldieu and Marechal meet fellow prisoners who are digging a tunnel to get out. Among the prisoners they meet is a wealthy French Jew named Rosenthal (Marcel Dialo) who is aware of the special treatment that de Boeldieu is getting because of his aristocratic background.
After news about a battle that the French won, Marechal is put into isolation for a while as he and de Boeldieu are sent to another prison in a castle run by von Rauffenstein. With Rosenthal also sent to von Rauffenstein’s castle, he and Marechal make plans for an escape while de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein engage in conversations over their aristocratic background. Though Rosenthal doesn’t trust de Boeldieu, Marechal gains de Boeldieu’s trust as he creates a diversion for the two to escape. During the escape, Rosenthal and Marechal make their way to the German countryside towards the Switzerland border as Rosenthal injures his foot. Finding shelter in the home of a widow named Elsa (Dita Parlo), she takes them in as the two men ponder what to do next.
While the setting of the film is a war film, it’s really a prison break out film with themes of social classes and order. While the character of Marechal might have qualms towards de Boeldieu because he’s from an aristocratic background and Marechal comes from a working class background. The two stick together because they’re soldiers as Marechal chooses to swallow his pride and let things be. Trying to help other French prisoners to escape and later engage in lavish stage shows to entertain their soldiers and German officers. Marechal has a duty to remain still as the Germans aren’t so hostile though escaping proves to be treacherous.
By the time they meet von Rauffenstein again in his castle, von Rauffenstein is only interested in de Boeldieu which increases the gap between social order for Marechal. Particularly because von Rauffenstein sees de Boeldieu as an equal as they believe that they’ll be obsolete once the war is over. Yet, de Boeldieu would become the man who helps Marechal escape realizing the only way how following an incident involving Russian prisoners. The script that Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak is compelling for its study of class and the way war is handled among soldiers and POWs. While there’s a lot that happens throughout the film, it’s only because the script allows the audience to understand what goes on in prison life during World War I.
Renoir’s direction is superb for the way he lets many of the film’s moments play through. Though, at times, scenes do play out a little too long and creates some pacing issues throughout the film. It’s only because Renoir is trying to get the audience involved in how the prisoners are trying to plan their escapes while dealing with the German soldiers who aren’t all that bad. Renoir always let the camera play out the reactions and savor the locations the camera is in. Even as he creates some tracking shots and close-ups to let audience aware of what is at stake and the moments that are happening. Despite the flaws with the pacing on some parts of the film, Renoir creates a solid yet mesmerizing film.
Cinematographer Christian Martas does a fantastic job with the film‘s black-and-white photography to capture the beautiful mountains near France for its wide shots. Even as he creates some amazing dark lights and shading for some of the nighttime exterior scenes. Editors Marguerite Renoir and Marthe Huguet do an excellent job with the editing by creating some straight cuts along with fade-outs and dissolves for the film’s transitions as it moves well despite a few long scenes. Production designer Eugene Lorie does a great job with the creating of the prison rooms that the characters live in along with the house that Marechal and Rosenthal seek shelter in.
Costume designer Rene Decrais is brilliant for its look to create the differences of class in its characters from the ragged look of Marechal to the refined clothing of de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein. The sound work by Joseph de Bretagne is very good for the sounds of troops marching and gun blasts for some of the more intense moments of the film. The music by Joseph Koma is quite stellar for its flourishing orchestral score to play up its drama and humor. The rest of the soundtrack that is supervised by Emile Vuillermoz has an array of music relating to their countries as well as tunes of the early 1910s.
The casting is phenomenal as it features some small but memorable performances from Little Peters as Elsa’s daughter, Sylvain Itkine as a transferred prisoner, Jean Daste and Gaston Modot as prisoners of the first camp, and Julien Carette as the brash but funny prisoner Cartier. Dita Parlo is really good as Elsa, the woman who takes Marechal and Rosenthal late in the film as she reveals the loss she suffered due to war. Marcel Dalio is excellent as Rosenthal, a wealthy Jew who helps out Marechal with the escape despite his feelings towards de Boeldieu over his aristocratic status.
Pierre Fresnay is superb as Captain de Boeldieu, an aristocratic soldier who tries to maintain a sense of realism for the soldiers as he uses his class status to make things better only to be aware that his status is in decline. Erich von Stroheim is great as Captain von Rauffenstein, a German officer who offers a decent life to prisoners as he sees de Boeldieu as an equal while often treats Marechal with indifference over his class status. Jean Gabin is brilliant as Marechal, a mechanic-turned-soldier who observes all that is happening while trying to escape in what is an intense yet touching performance.
Le Grande Illusion is an exhilarating film from Jean Renoir featuring spectacular performances from Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich von Stroheim. Anyone interested in Renoir will find this film as a good starting point while it’s also one of the great studies on war and class politics. Particularly on a setting like World War I which is often overlooked in a lot of war films. While it does have a few pacing issues throughout the film, it is still a very engaging film about prison life and the means to escape. Le Grande Illusion is a magnificent film from the late, great Jean Renoir.
Jean Renoir Films: (Backbiters) - (La Fille de l’eau) - (Charleston Parade) - (Une vie sans joie) - (Marquitta) - (The Sad Sack) - (The Tournament) - (The Little Match Girl) - (Le Bled) - (On purge bebe) - (Isn’t Life a Bitch?) - (Night at the Crossroads) - Boudu Saved from Drowning - (Chotard & Company) - (Madame Bovary (1933 film)) - (Toni) - A Day in the Country - (Life Belongs to Us) - (The Lower Depths (1936 film)) - (The Crime of Monsieur Lange) - (La Marseillaise) La Bete Humaine - Rules of the Game - (Swamp Water) - (This Land is Mine) - (Salute to France) - (The Southerner) - (The Diary of a Chambermaid (1945 film)) - (The Woman on the Beach) - The River - (The Golden Coach) - (French Cancan) - (Elena and Her Men) - (The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment) - (Picnic on the Grass) - (The Elusive Corporal) - (The Little Theater of Jean Renoir)
© thevoid99 2011
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