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Memphis Flyer The Reel Deal

By Mark Jordan

MARCH 20, 2000: 

Grand Illusion, Directed by Jean Renoir, Home Vision Entertainment

Given the remarkable journey Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion has taken since it was first released in 1938, it's a miracle this seminal war pic a regular entry on many greatest-film lists is around for modern audiences to appreciate at all. But here is a beautiful, restored print that reveals the sumptuousness of Renoir's images. The son of French impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir based Grand Illusion his first international success as a filmmaker on the exploits of a daring fighter pilot he befriended during World War I. The film is likewise set during the Great War. But Grand Illusion transcends specific plot points in favor of a timeless message that was particularly timely, however, in the opening days of World War II.

The film follows the exploits of two French officers, the commoner Lt. Marachel (Jean Gabin) and the privileged Capt. de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay). This odd couple is shot down by the German fighter ace Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim, himself a renowned director of silent classics such as Greed and Foolish Wives) and ferried from concentration camp to concentration camp. The pair acquires a comrade in another POW, the Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and the trio attempts a daring escape from a mountain fortress newly commanded by von Rauffenstein.

Though there are exciting and rousing bits of action including some that were later appropriated by Hollywood filmmakers in movies such as Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) and The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963) most of Grand Illusion is focused on the personal relationships among the soldiers and how their social preconceptions bind and divide them. The grand illusion, Renoir is telling us, is the artificial differences men erect between them. Not so much an anti-war film the characters all find a degree of nobility and an empowering camaraderie in an undoubtedly tragic event Grand Illusion is more a revelation of the folly of war and the arbitrariness of the sides drawn in such conflict.

When the Germans arrived in France for an extended stay in 1940, they understandably found Grand Illusion's theme of universal brotherhood anathema and ferreted the original negative away to a vault in Berlin. The Russians next claimed it and, not realizing what exactly they had, archived it in Moscow. In the 1960s, Russian and French film archives exchanged prints including the Grand Illusion negative but again the film went unrecognized, and sat on a shelf in Toulouse for 30 years. In the meantime, Renoir himself had supervised a restored print in 1958, culled from bits of existing prints, but his version was inherently flawed, full of scratches and bad film splices. Nevertheless, it has been the version audiences have seen since the original release, until a 1997 restoration team stumbled upon the original negative. They were able to create a new print of the film that does justice to Renoir's mise-en-scene a masterful use of deep-focus photography and camera movement that also marks his other masterpiece, 1939's The Rules of the Game, and that stands as one of the cornerstones of film language.

Last summer, the restored Grand Illusion made the movie-house rounds (though it never appeared here), and earlier this year, Home Vision released a DVD version and now the video is out. The DVD naturally comes loaded with extras, including an audio essay by film historian Peter Cowie, a radio presentation of Renoir and star Erich von Stroheim accepting honors at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards, and a number of documents related to the film's production and release. But the video and the DVD share the most interesting bits, including an introduction Renoir filmed for the 1958 re-release and a demonstration of the restoration process.

Modern audiences may find elements of Grand Illusion a tad dated. The lack of special effects and use of single-set sequences make the film seem stagy, though the camera work is excellent. And some of the performances especially von Stroheim's legendary turn as the aristocratic German flying ace seem horribly hammy, though Gabin is just as charismatic and effective today. But the artistry with which Renoir tells his poignant and profound tale more than makes up the difference. n Mark Jordan


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