I don't believe it's perfectly clear what Renoir had in mind when he gave his film the rather mysterious title La Grande Illusion. What big illusion was Renoir thinking of? Many reviews of the movie have offered an opinion, but on the commentary track of the Criterion Collection DVD, film historian Peter Cowie says that the title is "rather gratuitous," which I interpret to mean that he thinks the film doesn't particularly merit its title. Also on that DVD under the Press Book option there's a selection About the Title which states that Renoir's title was "apparently inspired" by a 1910 book by Norman Angell titled The Great Illusion which "argued that the common economic interests of nations made war futile." A slightly generalized version of this notion is advanced in Christopher Faulkner's 1986 book The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir, which characterizes La Grande Illusion as "pacific and conciliatory" and states that the film "attacks the great illusion that war can be for the good of man." Faulkner's view fits well with Cowie's claim on the DVD commentary track that "Renoir wanted to make a statement about his dream of a peaceful world."
Writer-director Jean Renoir created five unforgettable characters in La Grande Illusion -- Marechal, Rosenthal, Boeldieu, Rauffenstein, and Elsa -- and I find it impossible to imagine five actors better suited than the ones in the film to play these five roles. Jean Gabin plays the main character Marechal so effortlessly as a working-class everyman that I'm not even sure I can tell if he's acting or not. Marcel Dalio makes the nouveau riche Rosenthal such a lovable character that it's no wonder Goebbels got so upset. Pierre Fresnay's mannered performance as the icy Boeldieu gradually earns our grudging respect, which is exactly what should happen with this sort of character. Erich von Stroheim is so compelling as the flamboyant Rauffenstein that he almost steals the movie, even though his character figures in only about one-third of the film. And finally, Dita Parlo manages to tug at my heartstrings as the lonely widow Elsa, who shelters men from the army that killed her husband and brothers.
Renoir has a subtle visual style that beautifully matches the story in La Grande Illusion, and I think the result is a kind of poetry. He's a master at composition and lighting, and although it may not be immediately obvious, he often uses deep focus. But the remarkable thing about his technique in this film is that he frequently goes a long time without a cut or dissolve, but this is often camouflaged by continual camera movement during a long take. I think the reason this technique is so effective in La Grande Illusion is that he is often able to slowly move the camera over a whole room of people in a single take, and this serves to emphasize the film's themes of sharing, participation, and fellowship.
Some years ago the film critic Pauline Kael declared La Grande Illusion to be "the greatest achievement in narrative film," and I haven't seen anything yet that contradicts her statement. The movie is definitely on my very short list of the greatest films ever made. I'm delighted to own the Criterion Collection DVD so I can watch this moving masterpiece again and again, gaining new insights each time.
Selected Special Features on the Criterion Collection DVD:
- Commentary Track by Film Historian Peter Cowie
- Jean Renoir's Introduction
- Press Book Excerpts
- Audio Recording of the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards
- Examples of Film Restoration
- Optional English Subtitles
- DVD Release Date: November 23, 1999
Formats Available: The above information refers to the DVD; this film is also available on VHS.