Class rules

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

JEAN RENOIR, one of the very great­est film di­rec­tors, came to view this key mas­ter­piece with an iron­i­cally raised eye­brow. “In 1937 I was told I had made the great­est an­ti­war picture – two years later war broke out,” he com­mented.

We can safely as­sume that the wise old chap never har­boured any (ahem) grand il­lu­sions that this slip­pery, witty, puz­zling film would bring an end to war. La Grande Il­lu­sion is, in fact, driven by a fa­tal­is­tic be­lief that such catas­tro­phes are wired into the hu­man psy­che. If we’d beaten all swords into ploughshares, in fact, the picture would now seem ev­erso-slightly mis­guided.

La Grande Il­lu­sion is, how­ever, very def­i­nitely about the end of some­thing. Eric Hob­s­bawm, the in­domitable Marx­ist his­to­rian, imag­ined a long ver­sion of the 19th cen­tury. Taken up with em­pire build­ing, the rise of cap­i­tal­ism and the stub­born re­silience of class struc­tures, the pe­riod lasted from the French Rev­o­lu­tion to the be­gin­ning of the first World War. This equiv­o­cal film, set in a prison camp dur­ing that last con­flict, cel­e­brates (and guiltily mourns) the pass­ing of an aris­to­cratic hege­mony. You don’t get that in The Great Es­cape.

The picture con­cerns two French air­men, one of no­ble birth, the other from a hum­ble back­ground, who are shot down by no less a ter­ri­fy­ing fig­ure than the mighty Erich von Stro­heim. They are taken to a prisoner-of-war camp, where their van­quisher (von Stro­heim plays a nob named Cap­tain von Rauf­fen­stein) es­tab­lishes con­nec­tions with the more well-bred of his two cap­tives. They know the same peo­ple. They’ve dined at the same fine restau­rants.

While car­nage con­tin­ues on the western front, the aris­to­crats main­tain (in just one of many in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the ti­tle) the il­lu­sion that these bonds sep­a­rate them from the petty squab­bles of hum­ble men. Mean­while, the avi­a­tors du­ti­fully plan their es­cape.

The film has al­ways been more im­me­di­ately ac­ces­si­ble than Renoir’s equally cel­e­brated The Rules of the Game/la Rè­gle du Jeu (1939). But, fea­tur­ing an ar­ray of strong char­ac­ters and a beau­ti­fully el­e­gant plot, it con­tin­ues to of­fer up sur­prises on ev­ery fresh viewing.

Screen­ing to­day at the Queens Film Theatre and, from next week, at the Ir­ish Film In­sti­tute, the fresh print de­mands at­ten­tion from ev­ery se­ri­ous cineaste. Do as your told. Open­ing to­day with­out a pre­view for Ir­ish crit­ics is

(12A cert, gen re­lease, 93 min), a thriller star­ring hunk-du-jour Henry Cav­ill ( Im­mor­tals), Bruce Wil­lis and Sigour­ney Weaver.

Di­rected by Jean Renoir. Star­ring Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fres­nay, Erich von Stro­heim, Mar­cel Dalio, Gas­ton Modot

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