I can’t figure out who Renoir had in mind when he made Grand Illusion. It goes without saying he placed incredible trust in his audience, but his expectations are somewhat beyond anything else I’ve seen. Grand Illusion is a film with events–momentous, important events–but they pass without comment, without any recognition or identification. The events tend to be big enough the viewer can recognize them, but Renoir’s characters either process them offscreen or silently.
There are some obvious examples, like the one officer sacrificing himself so others can escape and it never once being acknowledged. When he comes up again, the escapees immediately stop talking about him (in fear of it being a downer of a conversation). Renoir fills the film with moments of unstated significance, but he takes it to a technical, storytelling level too. In one scene, characters get on a train, there’s a long montage of shots presumably from the train windows, followed by a new place with the characters arriving. Except over a year has passed and the characters have been in multiple other prison camps in the missing months and the viewer doesn’t even find out about it for five minutes into this new section. It manages to be confusing without disorienting–I’ve seen the film twice before and it still threw me for a little loop.
Since Grand Illusion, many war films have used a fractured narrative with style-heavy tactics to comment on war’s disorder. But these films tend to do it visually. I’m not aware of any other war film with Grand Illusion‘s approach–Renoir doesn’t say anything to the viewer, doesn’t request any participation from the viewer, doesn’t encourage him or her to engage with the material. Instead, Renoir tells the story in a way indifferent to the audience. All fiction exists in some state without reader interaction, but Grand Illusion is one of the few completely disinterested in what that interaction might generate. It’s kind of crazy, I suppose, but it works and Renoir knows it does.
The cast–Jean Gabin, Julien Carette, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim–is perfect. In the first part of the film, Renoir relies a great deal on Carette for humor, while weighing Gabin done (Gabin can, of course, handle it). The second part relies greatly on the relationships between Fresnay and von Stroheim and Fresnay and Gabin. Fresnay and von Stroheim are two aristocratic officers, leftovers from the previous century, whose kinship is the only one Renoir points out. Gabin and Fresnay, who’ve been together the entire film, don’t have that connection. Their scenes in this stage, where they process the significance of class in modern warfare, are somewhat tragic and glorious.
The last part of the film, with German widow Dita Parlo taking in Gabin and company, is probably Grand Illusion at it’s most traditional. It shouldn’t feel like an organic progression, but does. Renoir doesn’t exactly talk about the things he hasn’t been able to mention in the other sections; he shows them instead. For the first time in the film since the first scene, Gabin plays the leading man. First-billed, he’s rarely the most important person in the film. His scenes with Parlo, which–again–should be Grand Illusion at its most awkward or weakest, are wonderful. Renoir handles them gently, tragically hopeful. Along with the film’s final scene, they make Grand Illusion nearly optimistic.
Orson Welles called this film the one he’d save. It makes sense.
Directed by Jean Renoir; written by Charles Spaak and Renoir; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; music by Joseph Kosma; produced by Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer; released by Réalisation d’art cinématographique.
Starring Jean Gabin (Lt. Maréchal), Dita Parlo (Elsa), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. de Boeldieu), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Julien Carette (Cartier), Georges Péclet (le serrurier), Werner Florian (Sgt. Arthur), Jean Dasté (the teacher), Sylvain Itkine (Lt. Demolder), Gaston Modot (the engineer) and Marcel Dalio (Lt. Rosenthal).