Monday, December 26, 2005

Grand Illusion (1937)

I realize this is kind of heretical to say, but this film struck me as kind of awkward and naive in its first half-hour -- the prison camps the protagonists get stuck in aren't that unpleasant or even inconvenient. How silly of me to not realize that it's by design, that it's indicative of the larger picture Jean Renoir is painting. One of the major points of the film is that war involves a surrendering of the everyday self and substitution of a persona. This is indicated by the film's emphasis on the soldiers' references to "civilian life" and their true jobs outside of the war. Everyone is just playing a role, and they all just want to go home some day. (Like El-P says, "I'm not a mechanism born to the state, I had to be trained...") This, then, is where the film's humanity lies. If the camps seem overly pleasant, it's because Renoir doesn't need to tell us that war is hell. He takes it as a given that we understand this and wants instead to point us in other directions. The unhappy fates of the two career soldiers -- the only persons with no true lives to resume in post-war society -- serves to cement this, but by this point the film's moving on to bigger things, to a call for universal harmony and understanding. (Language barrier? Not much of a barrier at all.) It's a striking and moving film, littered with memorable images (the drag scene, for instance... and hey, there's more role-playing!) and possessed of some wonderful acting. Erich von Stroheim, in particular, confirms his brilliance in portraying the delicacies of wounded dignity. Takes a while to grow, but grow it does; I suspect repeat viewings will impress me even more.

Grade: B+


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