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Reviewed by:
  • La Grande Illusion, and: La Grande Illusion
  • Keith Reader
La Grande Illusion. By Julian Jackson. (BFI Film Classics). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; London: British Film Institute, 2009. 116 pp., ill. Pb £9.99.
La Grande Illusion. By Martin O'Shaughnessy. (French Film Guide). London: I. B. Tauris, 2009. 126 pp., ill. Pb £12.99.

The virtually simultaneous appearance of two studies of the same film might have been expected to give rise to a sense of déjà lu, and inevitably there are significant overlaps, but Jackson (a historian) and O'Shaughnessy (a film studies scholar) have produced monographs on Renoir's great 1937 film that on the whole complement each other admirably. Jackson begins by placing the film within the context of its time before going on to an overview of Renoir's work before La Grande Illusion, an account of the circumstances of the film's making, Renoir's pursuit of realism — complemented by a judicious stress on the importance of theatricality in his work — themes of gender and race, and some intriguing and well-argued speculations on the possible fates of the main characters had they lived until 1940. He concludes, adroitly, with what might be the first question an audience new to the film would ask (and the one I always ask my students to kick off seminar discussion): what is the eponymous 'illusion'? The absence of a single master interpretation, unsurprisingly, is the answer Jackson proposes, but he goes beyond this in a splendid final paragraph linking de Boëldieu's playing of his whistle towards the end with the recurrence of panpipes in Renoir's other work, and wondering whether, behind the 'film about war or peace or class' we think we have been watching, might be lurking one 'more whimsical, playful and personal' (p. 107), so that the question about the film's illusion might itself be seen as illusory. Jackson may slightly underrate Renoir's earliest work — among the silents, La Fille de l'eau and Nana seem to me better than he suggests — while I would take issue with his implicit categorization (p. 20) of Carné's work with Prévert as cinéma de qualité (poetic realism was something else again). But this is a richly documented and well-written survey of the film, striking an excellent balance between histoire événementielle, cultural contextualization, and cinematic analysis.O'Shaughnessy devotes somewhat more space to what might be called generic criticism, providing a useful tabular appendix on the successive avatars of the script and offering the first published analysis of Renoir's initial outline, Les vasions du Colonel Pinsard. His text is more polemical, arguing powerfully and eloquently for the film's 'status as a classic example of political cinema' (p. 3); all the odder, then, that in his overview of Renoir's major actors no mention should be made of Gaston Modot, who appeared in seven of his films and was probably the most engagé of Renoir's long-term collaborators. O'Shaughnessy, like Jackson, emphasizes the film's historically ambivalent character ('Caught between two contexts, it would need to deal with one (the war) explicitly and the other (the 1930s) implicitly', p. 25) as the source of much of its interest. His analyses of individual sequences, such as the famous 'Marseillaise' scene, are models of their kind, and like Jackson he strikes the right balance between text and context(s) — a sine qua non in discussing this of all films. As in his monograph on Renoir, [End Page 515] O'Shaughnessy deals admirably too with the fluctuating critical reception of the work since its release. His apparent rebuke to the French escapees, described as 'lacking clarity of vision or purpose' (p. 50), seems a trifle solemn, and his suggestion that at the end 'the lead characters are ready to seek some better future based on democratic and egalitarian politics' (p. 51), correspondingly meliorist; but his view of the film's gender politics, particularly Elsa as 'a desiring subject' (p. 53), is highly persuasive. Where O'Shaughnessy, through no fault of his own, suffers by comparison with Jackson is in the extremely poor quality of the still reproductions, which...


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