La Grande Illusion


Directed by Jean Renoir. Starring Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio, Gaston Modot Club, QFT, Belfast, 114 min

JEAN RENOIR, one of the very greatest film directors, came to view this key masterpiece with an ironically raised eyebrow. “In 1937 I was told I had made the greatest antiwar picture – two years later war broke out,” he commented.

We can safely assume that the wise old chap never harboured any (ahem) grand illusions that this slippery, witty, puzzling film would bring an end to war. La Grande Illusion is, in fact, driven by a fatalistic belief that such catastrophes are wired into the human psyche. If we’d beaten all swords into ploughshares, in fact, the picture would now seem ever- so-slightly misguided.

La Grande Illusion is, however, very definitely about the end of something. Eric Hobsbawm, the indomitable Marxist historian, imagined a long version of the 19th century. Taken up with empire building, the rise of capitalism and the stubborn resilience of class structures, the period lasted from the French Revolution to the beginning of the first World War. This equivocal film, set in a prison camp during that last conflict, celebrates (and guiltily mourns) the passing of an aristocratic hegemony. You don’t get that in The Great Escape.

The picture concerns two French airmen, one of noble

birth, the other from a humble background, who are shot down by no less a terrifying figure than the mighty Erich von Stroheim. They are taken to a prisoner-of-war camp, where their vanquisher (von Stroheim plays a nob named Captain von Rauffenstein) establishes connections with the more well-bred of his two captives. They know the same people. They’ve dined at the same fine restaurants.

While carnage continues on the western front, the aristocrats maintain (in just one of many interpretations of the title) the illusion that these bonds separate them from the petty squabbles of humble men. Meanwhile, the aviators dutifully plan their escape.

The film has always been more immediately accessible than Renoir’s equally celebrated The Rules of the Game/La Règle du Jeu (1939). But, featuring an array of strong characters and a beautifully elegant plot, it continues to offer up surprises on every fresh viewing.

Screening today at the Queens Film Theatre and, from next week, at the Irish Film Institute, the fresh print demands attention from every serious cineaste. Do as your told.