Cahiers du Coco: Grand Illusion

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[Join Ettes leader and Fond Object founder Coco Hames as she moves through the Janus Films Essential Art House DVD box set one film at a time.]

GRAND ILLUSION directed by JEAN RENOIR (1937)
Running time: 114 minutes
In French with subtitles

Sometimes there's nothing better than putting on some fun TV and zoning out while you cook and clean. I just realized that ever since high school, whenever I retreat into that mode, it's always with H. Jon Benjamin, the king of voice actors. Dr. Katz, Wet Hot American Summer, Home Movies, Bob's Burgers ... what can I say? I love him. That's where I've been, with H. Jon.

So when it was time for the next installment in my Janus journey, I was somewhat hesitant to put on a 1937 French war film. And then I remembered: it's RENOIR. Renoir is the H. Jon Benjamin of directors — a man who contains a million voices, with affection for all.

I went through a pretty serious Renoir thing a very long time ago, and it had been forever since I'd seen Grand Illusion. How glad I was to get to watch it again! It's considered one of his best films — Orson Welles thought it was the best, better even than The Rules of the Game — and it was the first foreign film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. But that doesn't really tell you how direct and humane it is.

Captain de Boeldieu (a precise and elegant Pierre Fresnay, reminding me visually of Boardwalk Empire's Richard Harrow character) and Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin, ownin' tha screen) are shot down and become prisoners of war during WWI. We follow them through their captivity and attempts at escape. We see the friends and alliances they make, and realize from the get-go that de Boeldieu is an aristocrat, whereas Marechal is more of a regular, working-class Joe Lunchpail. They both know it, are aware of their differences, and talk about it with other people — though not so much with each other.

They end up under the supervision of RITTMEISTER VON RAUFFENSTEIN (say it! out loud!) played by the inimitable Erich von Stroheim. He connects with de Boeldieu because they're both from the doomed, outmoded upper class, and theirs is one of the movies' saddest friendships-that-might-have-been. Von Stroheim's costume in the second half of the film might be among my top five wish-list costumes that I would never be able to pull off (but a girl can dream).

No spoilers here, but suffice it to say the characters are full and fascinating, a pleasure to watch, and few films of this era and subject matter feel so warm and empathetic. And yet even though this may look like a tea party compared to the blood and guts of later war movies, its impact is no less devastating. De Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein may have an easier time reaching across borders than class lines, but in wartime the rules of engagement must ultimately assert themselves. Put another way: there's no such thing as civilized war.

Renoir was himself an aviator in World War I, sustaining an injury to his leg that left him with a permanent limp. Perhaps it was his closeness to the story that gives it that sense of understanding.

And no, I don't think his genes hurt him, either.

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