Wednesday, January 15, 2014

La Grande Illusion

Two French airmen, one a nobleman (Pierre Fresnay), the other from working class roots (Jean Gabin), are shot down by a mannerly officer (Erich von Stroheim) who lives and dies by the code of war and sees that his aristocratic counterpart is treated with dignity. During their imprisonment, the two friends make several escape attempts before being transferred to a mountainous gulag proudly billed as inescapable (and also where the German officer is now installed as warden) where they naturally plan their illustrious exit. Jean Renoir's roundly trumpeted tour de force functions soaringly on two fronts, first as an intricate, exciting prison escape adventure movie (every subsequent film of its kind [ie, The Great Escape, The Shawshank Redemption, etc.] surely has its roots here) and simultaneously as a critique of classicism and the idea of the nobility of war. Gabin and Fresnay are both superb in winning the audience over and von Stroheim, the purportedly tyrannical director who spent his previous American career embroiled in studio battles before his exile, is absolutely flawless as the gallant German officer.