BluRay Review: LA GRANDE ILLUSION (1937)

Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion is the kind of classic film that leaves you thinking 'Wow, that must have been a really big deal in its day'. While it still possesses a great deal of power, for all its craft Renoir's story never quite stops reinforcing that it's the product of a very specific time and place, and that people stopped treating its subject matter in the same way for a reason. It's a war story, and despite its age an undeniably moving one, put together by a master with a very talented cast and crew. But it's a dreamy, sentimental thing, and not always in a good way, like some stage production more than half a century forgotten. You're always conscious these are actors pretending to suffer, pine away and die, and for all its continued relevance any message in the story feels far more saccharine than it should.

Set in World War I - during which Renoir saw active service - La Grande Illusion starts when a French mechanic, Marechal (Jean Gabin) agrees to fly an officer, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) to his next assignment. But they never make it. Shot down by the aristocratic German ace von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim), the two men are held captive as prisoners of war, shunted back and forth between prisons as they repeatedly attempt escape. Finally, along with Rosenthal, a Jewish inmate who comes from a wealthy banking family in civilian life, they end up in an isolated mountain schloss where an injured Rauffenstein is now the warden. Boeldieu and Rauffenstein develop an instant rapport, two privileged men aware whoever wins, the war means the end of the established order and the world they grew up in. But Marechal and Rosenthal are still determined to break free.

It's not hard to see why the Nazis despised La Grande Illusion. Less than two years before World War II, they didn't need a prestigious filmmaker decrying their dreams of empire as the fantasies of wilful, destructive children. Hitler was well on his way to supreme power over the Reich at that point and given Renoir's perspective on the Great War, La Grande Illusion is plainly fuelled by the need to ask of people, to demand, you know what that guy with the funny moustache is doing, right? Are you seriously going to let all this happen again? For all the stylistic choices that date the film - the speeches, the melancholy score, the gentility - there's a quiet bitterness to the storytelling that lets you know it was put together by someone for whom all this was very real.

And despite the artifice it's quickly apparent why people consider Renoir a master. There's an easy lyricism to much of the dialogue that far outclasses most cinema for decades afterwards. Even in simple black-and-white 4:3, with no showy camera tricks, Renoir and DP Christian Matras set up some starkly arresting compositions. The leads all have the kind of matinee presence that simply bounds off the screen (Jean Gabin is even wearing Jean Renoir's actual uniform) and the location shots, particularly the climactic scenes outside Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, have a haunting, tattered beauty. This is cinema with a capital C, an event, one that wants to tell you something important, even if it comes couched in soft-focus heroics, impeccable breeding and languid sarcasm.

It's just for all Renoir obviously believes in his message, it still feels as if he can't quite bring himself to get really worked up about it, and in his reticence he robs the story of much of the impact it could have had. Moral ambiguity is fine and dandy, but La Grande Illusion is so hell-bent on treating everyone decently on both sides of the conflict it ends up being way too nice for its own good. The Germans are mostly good ol' boys, from Rauffenstein down to the least of his underlings - the worst we get is a cranky ancient or a guard explaining yes, that prisoner tried to escape, so we had to shoot him, hein? But it's plainly just the guy's job. Too much of La Grande Illusion thinks it's aiming for oh, the humanity, but ends up more 'Eh, it's war, I guess'.

Prison is jolly hockey-sticks bickering with one's cellmates and hijinks when the guards' backs are turned. Peasant women are plainly wearing studio makeup and unflattering dresses. No-one really suffers - the closest we get is when Dita Parlo's widow haltingly reveals how many people she's lost to the war, yet this is the only time anything gets openly raw, painful, human. Von Stroheim and Fresnay are a delight to watch (if partly to hear the former salting three different languages with a broad American accent) but their byplay is ridiculously affected, practically a bromance decades before anyone coined the term. When Rauffenstein launches into his 'The others, they're not really like you and me' speech dismissing Boeldieu's working-class friends, or the Frenchman's fellow inmates do the same to him, it's less a political diatribe and more hokey romanticised posturing.

And this discretion can't entirely be written off as a necessity given the decade Renoir was working in, either. It's definitely part of the reason: the unexpurgated realities of war would never have made it to the screen. But there's no real sense this is a film suggesting, rather than explicitly showing, a horror it can never completely convey. Elem Klimov's astonishing Come and See (1985), about the Nazi invasion of Belorussia, might have been made in a more permissive era but it still does a far better job of holding back what you don't need to see. Several of that film's most terrifying moments could almost have been sneaked past the censors in the 1930s. La Grande Illusion speaks in a soft, soothing voice far, far removed from the nightmare visions of Wilfred Owen in Dulce et Decorum Est, or even the mournful eulogising of Rupert Brooke.

All of this negativity doesn't detract from the simple fact La Grande Illusion is still a great, great film, and one deserving of its place in the canon of cinema. But although it's a fantastic piece of work, its craftsmanship and intent have long since been surpassed. If you have any interest in the history of film and the different ways people have used it to make a statement, you should probably make the effort to see La Grande Illusion, if you haven't already. But it's not remotely the kind of movie where, having watched it, you wonder how you ever managed without it (unlike Come and See). Does it deserve to be recommended? Sure, very much so, for the right audience. But though La Grande Illusion was obviously a masterpiece in its day, it doesn't really feel like one any longer.

THE DISC:

Regardless of whether or not it's a masterpiece, Studio Canal's UK BluRay of La Grande Illusion (available to buy from April 23rd) gives the film an excellent release in high-definition. The disc goes from the opening logo into a lengthy trailer for the Studio Canal Collection range of classic re-releases, though this can be skipped. The main menu is a showy, though fairly classy-looking composition with the new logo, part of the poster art and clips from the film itself (note that some of these could be considered mild spoilers). The menu options themselves are small, but clear enough and easy to navigate. The film has been divided into twelve chapter stops.

AUDIO:

The audio track - dual mono in DTS HD - is clear and legible, if still prone to the typical slightly distorted brassiness common to so many older films. Note that there are two dubs; the original, which is a mixture of French and German with a little English, and a wholly German dub. Not all of this is subtitled. Sometimes this is clearly intentional, for example to show when French characters don't understand German, but any English is never subtitled - even when, on the second dub, the new voice actors are now speaking in German. Regardless, the subtitles, while a little small, are clear and easy to read. German subtitles are also available.

VIDEO:

Studio Canal's new transfer is a thing of beauty, one of the best of the restorations they've released thus far. The film is definitely still showing its age, as well as its chequered history. There's still plenty of mild grain, and an odd effect in some scenes where characters further back or to the edges of the frame seem to be distractingly blurred. But while the picture is not as pin-sharp as a modern high-definition release there's still plenty of detail and good definition, even in dark or shadowed scenes, and actors in the foreground look frequently fantastic. It's consistently high quality, too, even in exteriors, and overall makes the visuals look startlingly fresh (even if this does accentuate how sentimental the whole thing is).

EXTRAS:

The BluRay musters a solid array of extras, many exclusive; there are two original trailers, one from the original release in 1937 and another from its re-release in 1958, not so much a trailer but an introduction by Renoir himself. The director speaks as an orator rather than anything more conversational, but squeezes in a good deal about the history of the film, its angry reception by Fascist governments, its retrieval after the war and its inspiration from Renoir's own experiences and his fellow airmen. Only five minutes, this is still a fascinating watch.

Restoring La Grande Illusion is a three-minute clip demonstrating how much went into cleaning up the film - it almost seems unnecessary given how great the picture obviously looks, but it does reinforce the extent of some of the print damage. The Story of the Original Negative, produced by La Cinematheque de Toulouse goes into this a bit further, as well as explaining the genesis of the film and putting it in context - this is only eleven minutes long, but clear, succinct and informative.

There are three pieces from critics and professionals analysing the film; Ginette Vincendeau, a professor of Film Studies at King's College, London introduces it, relating it to Renoir's life, his status as the son of a very famous painter, and the impact the film's reception (its success as well as the wartime bans from Nazi Germany and Italy) had on his career. Olivier Curchod, a specialist in Renoir's body of work, goes into further detail about the controversy it caused, released on the eve of war. The writer John Truby talking about how this was his education in how the two sides were not so different after all is arguably skippable, but the man clearly loves the film.

Françoise Giroud Remembers Shooting the Film is a quick twelve minutes in which the script girl revisits some of the original locations and shares her memories of production. Clearly taken from an older home video release (Giroud died in 2003, though she had a reasonably lengthy career in film and television writing after La Grande Illusion), with much of it obviously edited to a prepared script, it's still an eloquent little reminiscence, with Giroud looking fairly spry and alert despite her age.

The disc also includes Jean Renoir's The Little Match Girl, from 1928. This silent thirty minute short hasn't gone through anything like the same restoration as La Grande Illusion, but it still holds up very well, showing Renoir's talent even at such an early stage of his career - both in his eye for composition and in demonstrating an aptitude for conveying a great deal with the smallest gesture. Despite the childlike melodrama of the original fairy tale and the emphasis on broad physical acting common to so much silent film, in some respects the simplicity and focus makes it a more emotive experience than the main feature.

Note that most of the extra features do have subtitles, but only when people speak or titles come up in any language other than English.

La Grande Illusion still retains its importance as a vital cultural artifact, both for the history it depicts and what was going on around its production and release. It shows, on a technical level at least, why Jean Renoir continues to be held in such high regard. The director was in great form here, helped by a cast who took to his script with consummate enthusiasm. But despite the honesty of the film's message, and the personal touch invested in it by a man who very much wanted people to take notice of what he was trying to say, it's arguable that others have captured the nature of war on screen much more effectively since then - be it an optimistic hope people will some day stop fighting or a look at the sheer, mind-numbing horror of it all.

Wherever you stand on that one, though, Studio Canal's UK BluRay of La Grande Illusion gives the film a truly excellent release in high-definition, with a number of substantial extras. If you want to see the film at home, this is a great way to go about it. 
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