La Grande Illusion

A book launch, a classic film, and a look at the history of French cinema

by Adam Micklethwaite

La Grande Illusion
La Grande Illusion
Those of you frustrated by the lack of literature devoted to Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece La Grande Illusion need wait no longer, for 2009 marks the publication of not one but two books devoted exclusively to this most seminal of cinematic visions, the film which Joseph Goebbels famously condemned as Nazi Germany’s ‘cinematic public enemy No. 1’. Professor Julian Jackson, of the University of London, has written a guide to the film, as part of the BFI Film Classics series, and this launch also marked the publication of Professor Martin O’Shaughnessy’s (Nottingham Trent) book, La Grande Illusion: French Film Guide.

Professor Jackson’s book is primarily concerned with the film’s historical context and with director Jean Renoir’s involvement with the left-wing Popular Front movement, particularly the way in which the movement’s ideological schism, between those who wished to fight Fascism and those who wished to avoid war at any cost, explains the ambiguities in the film’s treatment of patriotism and pacifism. The author is also concerned with what it is that makes this film truly great: the performances of the four central actors: Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim and Marcel Dalio; as well as Renoir’s inimitable framing style and his conception of cinematic realism.

Professor O’Shaughnessy’s book has similar emphasis upon historical contextualisation, seeking also to locate the film within the context of Renoir’s own career and casting new light upon its genesis by comparing existing drafts with a previously undiscovered storyline.

Although I work in publishing, this was the first book launch I’d ever been to, and I must confess to not quite knowing what to expect but being quite excited at the prospect all the same. In the event, I’m sorry to say that the launch didn’t really live up to expectations. I was expecting some kind of structure to the evening, but it just turned out to be a gathering of the author’s friends, getting together for a bit of a chinwag - not terribly exciting for an outsider! The saving graces were the glasses of champagne and the easily accessible nibbles on the side.

Fortunately, the evening improved dramatically when we moved downstairs and into the cinema itself. Before the screening, the authors each spent five minutes introducing the film and explaining their passion for Renoir’s masterpiece, with Julian Jackson explaining that from a historian’s perspective “it’s an extraordinary film for its ambiguity,” whilst Martin O’Shaughnessy described La Grande Illusion as “a supreme example of ‘popular political filmmaking’,” expressing great admiration for the way that the film “takes apart and examines the seduction of nationalism.”

Seeing the film on the silver screen was the real highlight of the evening for me, and it was particularly beneficial to watch it with these brief introductions fresh in my mind, a contextualisation which really enhanced my appreciation and enjoyment.

After the film, the authors held an excellent Q&A session, which touched on such diverse topics as: the possible meanings of the title (friendship between social classes as the great illusion? The differences between men – social classes, nationalities etc as the great illusion?); the way that French national identity and popular consciousness were shaped by the horrendous losses suffered in World War 1 and the impact this had on Renoir’s film; and finally the ambiguities inherent in the film’s political subtext, which allow it be viewed alternatively as a humanist film, a pacifist film, or even a nationalist film, which seeks to re-appropriate nationalism for the left.

Unfortunately I had to disappear midway through the Q&A to run for the last train, but it was pretty fascinating stuff and I certainly felt that my appreciation of the film and its significance in the history of 20th Century cinema was greatly improved by the evening.

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