Grand Illusion, DVD Re-release
Directed by Jean Renoir
Reviewed by Steven Rubio
Thursday, February 1 2001, 12:06 PM
The story of the reclamation of Renoir's classic, Grand Illusion, is perhaps well-known at this point. On more than one occasion, the film has been rescued from a variety of mishaps, intentional and otherwise, most notably a couple of years ago when Criterion recovered the original camera negative in the process of producing their DVD version of the film. It is this version that is now widely available, and it is this version which brings to the forefront the timeless greatness of Renoir's film. Criterion's work is so strong that it disappears as you are watching, which is appropriate, since Renoir himself at his best seems to be "without" technique, and we know how much work goes into such a 'naturalistic' appearance.
Grand Illusion is a movie about class that doesn't hate anyone. How often does that happen? Yes, there are namby-pamby movies that "show all sides" and bore everyone with their non-existent point-of-view, but that's not what I mean. And, of course, there are plenty of movies about class that reveal their biases from the start; I'm rather fond of Eat the Rich movies, myself. But Grand Illusion is about class without dismissing any of its characters. The aristocrats whose world is disappearing are presented as tragic figures, stuck in a code of life that is rapidly becoming meaningless. Both aristocrats know their time is past; the French one accepts this as probably a good thing, the German one doesn't (and blames the French one's sentiments on the French Revolution), but they both know their way of life is soon to be forgotten. And it would be easy for Renoir, when he made the film in the mid-30s a French communist with proletarian sympathies, to demonize these two. But he doesn't; he allows them their humanity, which is the most characteristic feature of Renoir movies in any event (he is the great humanist of movie history).
Nor does he show the collapse of the old way as an unfortunate preface to chaos. The bourgeois characters are good people. The world might be safe in their hands, as safe as in any other hands at least (except for the propensity among nations for war). All of the middle and lower-class characters in the movie are presented as people, not stereotypes. But Renoir doesn't accomplish this by collapsing all class boundaries into some homogenous universalism. These characters remain trapped within their class, and their class is clear to the viewer. The movie is not about the absence of class but about the crushing ironies of the very real existence of class in the lives of the characters. To show all classes without condescension, while retaining a particular point of view (that while people are good, it's best that the aristocratic world is in decline), is pretty amazing.
In Grand Illusion, the nominal hero is working/middle-class, but the upper-class isn't evil and the lower class isn't romanticized or dismissed. And it's all accomplished in such a seamless way that many, if not most, first-time viewers might easily think it was a fine movie but something less than great. It sneaks up on you, and more than just about any film you can name, rewards multiple viewings.