I’d already reviewed this film before embarking on this Criterion-watching journey, so my comments there still stand, though on second watch I’m prepared to be a bit more generous towards what it achieves. After all, as a classic of a certain genre (‘poetic realism’) and an antecedent for so much else (film noir, hard-boiled romantic leads, beautiful nihilism), this should really be more famous than it is. Jean Gabin is on fine form as the existentially ennui-laden yet dashing crim of the title, who falls for an upper-class woman slumming it in the Casbah of Algiers, and lets that lead him to lose his edge. The poetry comes through in the odd framing, an expressive use of the camera with a bit of soft focus and some nice little bits of montage (most notably when he first meets Mireille Balin’s femme).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Julien Duvivier | Writers Henri La Barthe (as “Détective Ashelbé”), Julien Duvivier, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson (based on the novel by La Barthe) | Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger | Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 19 July 2013 (and most recently at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 August 2017)
There’s something almost a little unfashionable, it seems to me, about filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps because fashions and lifestyles in the lead-up to world war were just a little more buttoned-down and less flamboyant, and stories had to keep pace with dolorous political events. But this also means it was a time when stories of great humanity and soul were being made, not least by French filmmaker Jean Renoir, whose great masterpieces of this era still sit solidly near the top of ‘best ever’ film canons. La Grande illusion is Renoir at the top of his form, crafting a beautifully-shot story of class antagonism set at a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. It depicts a changing world, where the aristocrats in charge (Pierre Fresnay’s de Boeldieu, and Erich von Stroheim’s von Rauffenstein) find that the extreme events of war have united them with people they’d not usually fraternise with (Jean Gabin’s mechanic Maréchal and Marcel Dalio’s Jewish nouveau riche Rosenthal, among others). It’s clear that each has different ideas of the value of war and about how it should be conducted, and ultimately the film sides with the lower-class characters, implying that aristocratic values are increasingly irrelevant and doomed to disappear. (Would that this had been proven true in the real world, where Renoir’s warnings about war’s futility were hardly taken on-board, and where our current ruling classes hardly seem to have moved on in some respects.) It’s all beautifully filmed in shimmering monochrome, and in the end somehow uplifting, despite the setting.
As with these early Criterion DVD releases, there are some text-based extras, although the Press Book essays are fairly informative.
There’s a brief demonstration of the film’s restoration, and indeed the print is sparkling and gorgeously-toned.
An audio excerpt of the film winning at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards has the voices of Renoir and von Stroheim.
A trailer presents not the film but instead Renoir talking about the film and his experiences making it (looking back from the late-1950s).
Finally, Peter Cowie’s commentary is attentive to the film, giving some background and discussing some of the issues that Renoir raises.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Jean Renoir | Writers Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak | Cinematographer Christian Matras | Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo, Erich von Stroheim | Length 114 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 October 2014
FILM REVIEW || Director Julien Duvivier | Writers Henri La Barthe (as “Détective Ashelbé”), Julien Duvivier, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson (based on the novel by La Barthe) | Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger | Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin | Length 90 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Friday 19 July 2013 || My Rating good
I’ve written already about the way films can introduce us as viewers to strange and foreign worlds and experiences, and there’s definitely a self-conscious sense of this here, with its exotic Algerian locales. And yet, if this is a film taking as its setting the colonialist fringes of French power, it’s also very much one in which these expansions are questioned. Ultimately it expresses the homesickness of the audience surrogate, Jean Gabin’s title character; it seems to express something of the melancholy of imperialism.