There was a time not that long ago when any list of great filmmakers would have included Jean Renoir and any list of great films would have included Grand Illusion (1937). But fashions in film and filmmakers change. Still, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) was a thinly veiled hommage to Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, and Woody Allen used Grand Illusion as a film that connects two lovers in Manhattan (1979). So Renoir can hardly be considered out of the running — except perhaps by those “movie lovers” who have no patience with anything made before 1990.
If you don’t know Renoir, it’s time you did and Grand Illusion is the best place to start. Generally considered an anti-war film — and it is one — Grand Illusion is really too many things to be neatly pigeon-holed by genre. It’s a World War I story — essentially a story about French prisoners of war escaping from a German prison — but it’s a subdued one that’s more about character than action. (In other words, Jerry Bruckheimer wouldn’t touch it with a stick.) And it’s as much about the end of the European ruling class, about the passing of an age, as it is about war. Is that passing age the “Grand Illusion” of the title? Yes, but that isn’t all — there are other illusions here.
Powerful, powerfully made, boasting an array of flawless performances — including Erich von Stroheim in perhaps his most famous role — Grand Illusion achieves that rare distinction of having a precise vision of an earlier time, making that vision relevant to its own time, and remaining strangely contemporary in any age. A deeply beautiful work.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke