There’s precious little I can say about La grande illusion (Renoir, France, 1936) that hasn’t been said before and likely many times over, so I won’t even try. Like the other Renoir masterpiece Le règle de jeu from a few years later, Illusion is a one of those films perennially at play at the “best ever made” cinephile games; both are films I ended up liking/appreciating more upon reviewings but have yet to genuinely warm up to (this is more or less the case with Renoir in general, unfortunately).
Not that I wasn’t immune to the magisterial depiction of the slow crack-up of the European class system(s) under the weight of the First World War–the film remains the benchmark of how to elegantly delineate the intricate intersections of class status, language, patriotism, illusions (and the inevitable, accompanying disillusions), sacrifice, friendship, and fraternité in a manner that is lucid but never lacks in complexity. The wary pas de deux between Maréchal and Boleidieu, together lamenting the passing of a centuries-old way of life and their privileged place within it, remain the highlight of the film, so much so that it’s rather impressive Renoir avoided the impulse in making the entire film into some kind of poignant, nostalgic elegy.
But at the same time Renoir also resists turning Jean Gabin (& co.) into idealistic symbols of emerging European populism–even as they trek across shimmering expanses of untrodden snow that seem to beckon a bright new future, it is disquieting how the tensions that occasionally emerge between Gabin (of the French/European working class) and Marcel Dalio (of the prosperous Jewish merchant class) seem to prophetically hint at dark chapters of history soon to unfold.
And while it might be an early depiction of such a situation, from a contemporary standpoint the appearance of haloed Dita Parlo as the shy but sympathetic German hausfrau can’t help but feel a bit like a musty cliché (such was my boyfriend’s criticism), but for me it did end up taking the film to a different dimension of emotional engagement it never quite manages to reach otherwise. Also of note: Rialto’s 75th anniversary restoration is gorgeous–it’s traveling across the country all summer; prioritize it if it’s going to being crossing your path.
[Seen at the Castro Theatre, 06/01/12]