- In Search of ‘La Grande Illusion’: A Critical Appreciation of Jean Renoir’s Elusive Masterpiece by Nicholas Macdonald
La Grande Illusion (1937), by some way Renoir’s most successful film in his lifetime, appears of particular relevance in the context of the recent centenary year of the First World War. Nicholas Macdonald (a film-maker, not an academic) here gives us an admirably documented and extensively illustrated treatment of the film — a love letter as much as a ‘critical appreciation’, imbued with a passionate wish to retrieve and celebrate a work often perceived as ‘stodgily admirable’ (p. 13). Of particular note is the stress he places on the pivotal role of Maréchal/Jean Gabin, whose ‘Bildungsroman’ (p. 14) the film recounts. Like practically all Renoir’s work bar the Michel Simon vehicle Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932), La Grande Illusion is first and foremost an ensemble piece, but that should not entail neglecting Gabin’s role in it as primus inter pares. Macdonald shows keen formal awareness in his analysis of the film’s ‘structure of overlapping entanglements’ (p. 55), centring above all on Maréchal. His scholarship is thorough, with a meticulous breakdown of shots and detailed notes on all the major figures involved with the film, in front [End Page 285] of or behind the camera. I was shocked to discover that the little girl who played Lotte in the farmhouse sequence was to die of influenza before the film’s premiere. The tone may surprise an academic readership with its unevenness, veering from the chatty to the closely analytical, and including the surely nowadays unwarranted assertion that Renoir père is ‘far better known than the son — an important indication that film is still not generally accepted as an important art form’ (p. 146). A doubtless concomitant problem is posed by the work’s virtual absence of theorization and dearth of reference to secondary sources — not in short supply for this film — or indeed to the interplay between the time of the film’s making and that about which it was made. La Grande Illusion may be set during the First World War, but much of its continuing power derives from its foreshadowing of the conflict to come. Thus, the singing of La Marseillaise after Douaumont has been retaken can be viewed as ‘the most baldly nationalistic passage in the film’ (p. 45) only if one disregards the 1937 context of a perilously resurgent Germany. For these reasons, I would hesitate to suggest this as a sole background text for students of the film, but equally unhesitatingly recommend it for inclusion in a wider bibliography and in university libraries.