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La Grande Illusion(1937)
Jean Renoir's pacifist masterpiece stars Jean Gabin as a French World War I POW held by Erich Von Stroheim's German captain.
For more about La Grande Illusion and the La Grande Illusion Blu-ray release, see La Grande Illusion Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on July 26, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio, Julien Carette
Director: Jean Renoir
» See full cast & crew
La Grande Illusion Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, July 26, 2012
How many films that you've seen this year will be remembered in 2087? Probably very few, if we're being honest with ourselves One of the benefits of time passing is that it has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, so that even today's acclaimed "masterpiece" can seem after a few years to be nothing more than a passing fad, as it were. A relative handful of films have truly stood the test of time and remain as meaningful and even important today as they were when they were originally released. Such a film is Jean Renoir's immortal classic La Grande Illusion, a fascinating study of prisoners of war during World War I that ended up making some piquant commentary about what were at the time of the film's release the simmering tensions that would soon erupt into World War II. It's almost shocking to realize that an artist of Jean Renoir's stature really faced a lot of withering, even blistering, critical response to many of his works at the time of their original release (and even afterward), including films like La Rêgle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) which have since gone on to become acclaimed as among the greatest films ever made. But Renoir's La Grande Illusion was met with uncharacteristic valentines from the press and the public in 1937, when the film first appeared, though the epochal conflicts engendered by World War II soon put the film's reputation in jeopardy, as Germany and Italy banned it and once France was occupied and the Vichy collaborationist government came into power, the film was also withdrawn in its native country as well. In the meantime, the film was slightly edited and after World War II it appeared that the original negative had disappeared. Renoir spent the rest of his life trying to track the negative down, and he also spent years preparing a restored version which was released to great acclaim in 1958. By an almost unbelievable series of events, the negative was discovered in the 1970s, unfortunately too late to satisfy Renoir's quest, but at least in time before any serious degradation of the elements had occurred (the story of the negative is covered in some detail in one of the supplements included on this Blu-ray). A photochemical restoration was done off of the negative in 1997, but those results, while superior to anything that had been seen in at least a couple of generations, proved to be less than ideal. With the advances in technology, especially as restoration has entered the digital age, Studio Canal and the Toulouse Cinematheque (where the negative resides) sponsored a sparkling new 4K scan and restoration, done by Bologna, Italy based Ritrovara Lab. The new restored version was screened theatrically recently and now home video enthusiasts can see the fruit of the restorative labors on this gorgeous new Blu-ray.
What got Renoir into a bit of trouble with La Grande Illusion was its almost chummy depiction of the relationship between some French prisoners of war and their German captors, as well as a brief Franco-German romance that occurs late in the film, two things that didn't sit well with some French audiences especially (at least before the occupation and the "forced" collaborationist spirit that occupation sparked). But what some critics failed to realize is that the camaraderie in evidence in the film is really one of class, something that in Renoir's postulation completely outweighs any passing concerns of nationality. It's a fascinating thesis and one that gives La Grande Illusion its very unusual social edge.
The film involves the trials of two French aviators, Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) who are captured by the Germans when they're on a scouting expedition and their plane is downed. They're then introduced to their captor, the aristocratic German Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim), who at once takes a shine to his "class" equivalent, de Boeldieu. The Frenchmen are also introduced to a gaggle of other French prisoners of war, and the class differences are made quite explicit. Maréchal's patriotism leads to solitary confinement, and upon his eventual release he and de Boieldieu help the French "grunts" dig an escape tunnel that has been long under construction. In one of the most interesting aspects of this multi-lingual film, the tunnel is almost completed just before the prisoners are dispersed to various other camps, but the language barrier between Maréchal and a newly arrived British prisoner means that knowledge of the tunnel isn't relayed effectively.
Ultimately the two Frenchman find themselves in a fortress like prison that's part Alcatraz, part Dracula's castle, and it is run by von Rauffenstein. Here they meet an ebullient Jewish banker named Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). It turns out the prisoners have long been planning an escape and they want to enlist the aid of de Boeldieu and Maréchal. The plot to escape requires a certain sacrifice by one of the prisoners, which leads to the fascinating denouement where de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein have to come to grips with the fact that the world is changing and the class structure of yesteryear is not going to last. It's part of Renoir's genius that the discussion here includes one character on the brink of death, but that character seems better prepared to make his transition than the other character who is going to live on to see a "new world order" emerge.
The film's coda is perhaps unnecessary, the one relatively weak link in an otherwise solid narrative. Maréchal and Rosenthal make their way out of the prison and are taken in by a German lady, and Maréchal obviously has romantic feelings for her. This in its own way is a recapitulation of class overcoming nationality, with the middle class Maréchal and the German woman commiserating about the horrors of war, aware that they're on different sides of the conflict but not letting it stand in the way of their feelings for each other.
La Grande Illusion takes a certain amount of patience, especially for modern day audiences raised on ADHD material that emphasizes brainless action and ersatz thrills. This is a contemplative film that ingratiates itself slowly but surely and actually only divulges some of its nuanced character beats on repeated viewings. Chances are in 2087, countless other films will have come and gone, long forgotten, but people will still be talking about La Grande Illusion.
La Grande Illusion Blu-ray, Video Quality
La Grande Illusion is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Studio Canal and Lionsgate Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.37:1. I've seen La Grande Illusion theatrically several times and have owned the film in various home video formats and can state positively this new transfer is something of a revelation. As some wag averred, even the last photochemical restoration was more a "shades of gray" rendering than an actual "black and white" rendering, but that has been markedly improved here. Contrast is outstanding, blacks are lustrous and whites are bright and crisp. Gray scale is also very nicely modulated. The restored elements are virtually damage free (eagle eyed videophiles may spot a moment or two of damage, like the white line that runs down the far right side of the frame during the credits). The almost nauseau inducing telecine wobble in some of the earlier home video incarnations has been completely ameliorated. This is one of the stunning success stories not only of archival preservation (thank heavens that negative was saved, albeit purely by chance) and the brave new world of digital restoration and scanning. La Grande Illusion looks absolutely marvelous and, best of all, naturally filmic in this brilliant new presentation.
La Grande Illusion Blu-ray, Audio Quality
La Grande Illusion has both its original (mostly) French language version and its (mostly) German dub available via lossless mono tracks delivered via DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mixes. I may come in for some drubbing here, so let me state this up front: the sound restoration done on La Grande Illusion is nothing short of miraculous. Previous theatrical prints and home video releases were marred by one of the tinniest, boxiest sounding soundtracks ever of a film of this vintage. The sound restoration team has worked wonders here, removing hiss without overly clipping the higher frequencies, and equalizing the midrange and low end to considerably beef up and normalize the sound. So, why not a higher score? For the simple reason that the stems themselves can only be "fixed" so much. There is such inherent shallowness to this soundtrack that only so much can be done for it, and though this is a marvelous new rendering of the soundtrack, it simply can't completely overcome the innate brittleness and boxy sound of the original recording. Take this all in perspective, though, because I reiterate the sound restoration here is nothing short of miraculous.
La Grande Illusion Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
La Grande Illusion Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
La Grande Illusion is one of those "must see" films for any serious lover of the medium. It's a more accessible "entertainment" (for want of a better term) than Renoir's La Rêgle du Jeu, though like that film it gives up its social commentary subtly, so the viewer must not be lulled into a false sense that nothing much is going on. The film is perhaps the most brilliant examination of class versus nationality in a time of war ever put on celluloid, and its stinging rebuke of a crumbling aristocracy can still be felt quite strongly to this day. This immensely impressive restoration is one of the most exciting stories of 2012 for any lover of classic film, and this Blu-ray offers it all up with glorious video and relatively excellent sound, along with a nice package of supplements. If you've never seen La Grande Illusion, you really must, and I don't make that comment lightly. If you have seen it, prepare to experience it like you never have before. Highly recommended.
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La Grande Illusion Blu-ray, News and Updates
• This Week on Blu-ray: July 31-August 7 - July 30, 2012
This week, Lionsgate is re-issuing the 1990 sci-fi-epic Total Recall on Blu-ray. While the release seems timed simply to capitalize on Sony's upcoming Total Recall remake, director Paul Verhoeven uses the Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You ...
• La Grande Illusion Blu-ray - June 27, 2012
In July, Lionsgate Home Entertainment and the StudioCanal Collection will bring La Grande Illusion to North American Blu-ray. Director Jean Renoir's beloved anti-war drama stars Jean Gabin (Port of Shadows) as Maréchal, a French lieutenant enduring imprisonment ...
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