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Feats of Decency: Close-Up on Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion"

Jean Renoir's singular achievement is a heartfelt plea for the civility, honor and grace of a more dignified era.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Grand Illusion (1937) is showing July 27 - August 26, 2017 in the United States as part of the retrospective Jean Renoir.
Grand Illusion
Considering Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion today in no small part involves an awareness of status and stature, the most prominent (or maybe just the most intimidating) aspect of which surely being the cherished status the film continues to enjoy in the canon of film history. To this day, it remains a singular achievement, not only as one of Renoir's foundational masterpieces, but also as a film of its time whose contents have remained timeless. Released in 1937 to great acclaim, it bid farewell to one era of European history and warfare as another, far darker one was about to begin; thus, more than the grimly comical The Rules of the Game (made and released two years closer to the brink of the madness that was to become World War II), and not least of all because it deals with war directly, Grand Illusion often seems like a heartfelt plea for the civility, honor, and grace of a more dignified era, offering a salute to these values at the precise moment of their passing in one last triumphant display.
The place of courtly dignity from which Renoir surveys the ordeals of the First World War is utilized with impeccable tact as the film distills the relations between the German oppressors and their French captives into a series of meetings, salutes, apologies, and cordial exchanges between officers, then, further down the ranks, inconveniences, compromises, deprivations, adjustments, and infringements, garnished with surprising moments of sympathy and even generosity between the so-called enemies. The dignified rituals of politeness and mutual respect enacted between Erich von Stroheim's formidable Captain von Rauffenstein and Pierre Fresnay's straight-arrow Captain de Boeldieu, whose paths first cross when the former shoots down the latter's plane in the field and accommodates his quarry and his comrades more as guests than prisoners, remain irresistably touching for the currents of warmth and fondness between the two men that run beneath the ornate surface of their impeccable etiquette. The cracks begin to appear in that surface almost right from the start as it becomes clear that de Boeldieu's true allegiance lies with his fellow French officers Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and the other soldiers in their company rather than with von Rauffenstein – who is, after all, still their captor. Though the German does his valiant best to uphold the codes of military honor and heritage that, in his mind, bind together men such as he and de Boeldieu even as enemies, he is powerless to prevent the end of his order as it gives way to the Maréchals and Rosenthals of the world: men bound not by correlations in class or lineage, but by codes of simple, inherent humanity, the kind that makes brothers out of strangers as seemingly far-removed as the aristocratic de Boeldieu and the working class Maréchal, or Maréchal and the Jewish Rosenthal. Renoir's assorted celebrations of this shared humanity shine from the screen as bright and true as fireworks against the black abyss of cold space. Renoir launched his rockets perched between two chasms of global calamity, surveying the landscape with tenderness in his heart but clarity and purpose in his gaze. It's still a wonder that his aim was so true, his eye so attentive and generous in that crucial moment when he chose to pay tribute to the extraordinary resilience of brotherly affection in the raging storms of conflict.
Renoir's overriding devotion to his actors remained instrumental to his methods and the kinds of films they produced, best exemplified throughout Grand Illusion by the warm, chummy displays of camaraderie between Maréchal, Rosenthal, de Boeldieu, and the rest of the men in their company. Granted, certain impeccably orchestrated images and scenes strike us with their mythic qualities—for instance, the elaborate second introduction Renoir bestows upon a shattered von Rauffenstein in his chapel-turned-lair at the heart of the awesome Wintersborn mountain fortress where he's been stationed. Renoir's camera looks up at the massive wooden Christ hanging from His cross over the German commander's makeshift quarters, then smoothly moves down and across the man's gathered array of accoutrements—bottle and glass, watch, binoculars, pistols, riding crops, a sheathed sabre and belt—then waits patiently as the battle-scarred von Rauffenstein's bark is heard from off-camera before von Stroheim's sturdy, armadillo-like bulk, now fitted with white gloves and neck brace, finally re-enter the film. Later, following de Boeldieu's death, Renoir gives us a magical, melancholy scene worthy of a fairy tale: as snow begins to fall outside the fortress, casting the cold stone chamber in pale light, von Rauffenstein awkwardly places himself before the sad little geranium he has been cultivating on the ledge beneath the window. Crushed by the passing of his opponent and kindred spirit, he carefully severs the blossom from its plant with a small pair of scissors. Von Stroheim's regal bearing, as memorable here as in the rest of the film, works just as effectively in creating a truly iconic screen presence as Gabin's gruff charm and animalistic vitality – vivid, peerless, unique to each man. Regarding the coolly brilliant Gabin, there were moments upon this most recent viewing when, strangely enough, I felt I was watching a Gallic Toshiro Mifune barking and treading across the screen—a bête humaine indeed.
The secret to Grand Illusion's longevity and its alignment with the rest of Renoir's work are the many moments of banter and camaraderie between the men – the organic moments of human interaction that entertain and charm more readily than they impress. The first of the film's three parts, mainly set in a prison camp, is its most boisterous and musical, reaching levels of pure vaudeville with its moments of play and performance, including the famous singing of "La Marseillaise" by a gathering of prisoners. It is here where Julien Carette, so memorable as the mischievous poacher Marceau in The Rules of the Game, makes the most of his screen time with his infectious energy and grinning, expressive face. When the film shifts gear and relocates the main prisoners to the Wintersborn, the abandonment of the hole so carefully planned and dug by the men in their barracks might hurt, but Carette's disappearance at the same juncture in the film truly stings, so attached we've become to his welcome bursts of morale-boosting joviality.
Nonetheless, Renoir's devotion to his actors and their natural talents remains steadfast right through the film's following segments: the Wintersborn chapter that nicely escalates the prison film elements established in the first part, and the comparatively austere third part in which Dita Parlo's German peasant woman, isolated and rendered a lonely single mother by the war, takes the freshly escaped Maréchal and Rosenthal into her humble abode in the country for rest, recovery, and a bittersweet taste of domestic solace. The aura of suspense, concentrated as always into the simple threat of discovery by the enemy, is still present, but here so marginal and fleeting as to be almost entirely beside the point. Instead of the suspense mechanics we might have gotten from a director like Alfred Hitchcock or Quentin Tarantino, Renoir instead shows us Gabin bonding with a sturdy Württemberg cow in the barn, tender scenes with the mother and her daughter enjoying the men's company and the improvised nativity scene they've fashioned for the child, the relief the lovely pastoral setting grants the fugitives, before finally arriving at the inevitable day of their departure.
The structures of Renoir's films are sturdy and elegant, but their lasting brilliance is indelibly rooted in the beating hearts and arterial currents of human fellowship that they house so carefully—and display so brilliantly for us to take in. "For an instant," François Truffaut once wrote, "we think to ourselves, 'I'll come back tomorrow and see if it all turns out the same way.' It's why some of the best evenings of the year would be spent watching La règle du jeu." The same can be said of Grand Illusion. Despite the inevitability—the sure knowledge we possess—of the end of the Great War and the eventual arrival of World War Two, or the snipping of that lonely little blossom in von Rauffenstein’s chambers and all it represents, still we come back to the chivalrous displays and raucous exchanges these characters enact on the ornate stage of conduct already in the process of crumbling away before our eyes, long gone in the present we wake up to once "Fin" disappears from the screen. Luckily, Renoir was right there to stage and capture it all before it disappeared for good. What a rare gift he gave us with the unmatched elegance and feats of decency that shape this unparalleled classic.

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