- Lessons for the Neoliberal Age:Cinema and Social Solidarity from Jean Renoir to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne1
In his recent article “Jean Renoir’s Timely Lessons for Europe,” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott recalls that when it was released worldwide in 1937, Renoir’s La grande illusion (Grand Illusion) won the admiration of statesmen as diverse in political opinion as Benito Mussolini and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, prompting the latter to declare “All the democracies in the world must see this film” (qtd. in Scott). The new digital restoration of La grande illusion has offered Scott the opportunity to school his contemporary America readers in the economic, social and political crises that gripped France, and much of continental Europe, when Renoir set out to make his now monumental and timeless contribution to world cinema. Scott acknowledges that history has marched on, significantly altering the societies and circumstances represented in La grande illusion. Yet he does find affinities between current conditions in Europe and those that troubled Renoir in the late 1930s when he formulated his poignant call for peace and understanding among European nations. To his mind,
Renoir’s film survives partly as a document of those volatile times, and of the idealism that persisted throughout them even as history prepared a new, unimaginable round of horrors. Seventy-five years on, Europe is far from a state of war, but in light of its current crisis—which is not only economic and political, but also, once again, a crisis of identity—Renoir’s film is still news.
Scott recalls the social strife and political battles that roiled Europe in the years leading up to World War II—conditions that marked the making of La grande illusion. However, his focus on Europe’s current economic plight narrows the scope of the history lessons that today’s viewers might draw from Renoir’s classic. In our present crisis, spawned by a financial meltdown of global proportions whose only likeness, we are routinely told, is the world-wide economic collapse of the early 1930s, there are no doubt other meanings to be gleaned from a cinematic master work [End Page 63] produced in the throes of that earlier economic catastrophe. For instance, Scott makes but passing reference to the social antagonisms of the period, which placed France’s working masses at fierce odds with the country’s long-entitled elites. In doing so, he elides discussion of the importance Renoir assigned to notions of collective solidarity in times of duress—a virtue that is celebrated not only in La grande illusion but in several of his other prewar films, including Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The crime of Monsieur Lange ), La Vie est à nous (Life Belongs to Us ) and La Marseillaise ). La grande illusion and its production context recall a history that is instructive not only for contemporary Europe, but for other societies across the globe that are now reeling from several decades of the neo-liberalization of their economic life. In forming this understanding, I have been drawn to a segment of La grande illusion in which a confrontation is staged that, I propose, is as meaningful for our contemporary moment as it was in Renoir’s troubled times. I am referring to the tensions that emerge in social life when the pursuit of individual self-interest is pitted against a society’s need to ensure both its collective material well-being and its care for the most vulnerable in its midst.
The sequence of interest to me here is one of La grande illusion’s most poignant. Given the fiercely ethnocentric tenor of its time, it is also one of its most courageous. It follows the flight of Maréchal and Rosenthal, two of the film’s main characters, from Wintersborn, a remote medieval fortress in which they have been imprisoned after numerous attempts to flee other detention sites during World War I. At the moment the mini-drama in question unfolds, Renoir’s viewers have been cinematically immersed in settings in which a host of human distinctions and the boundaries that enforce them have collapsed. The film features a full...