Human Desire (1954): Fritz Lang vs. Jean Renoir

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Edgar Buchanan always annoyed me endlessly on Green Acres reruns, and it’s affected me for a long time. Because only recently have I begun to realize just how broad and robust his body of film work is. He can be categorized with a breed of movie actor that is generally lost in today’s industry.

These were studio workhorses with filmographies so abundant it almost becomes second nature for them to don certain roles. It happens so easily and with such regularity, there’s rarely a need for explanation. It’s all right there in the character and the countless other pictures he’s popped up in before. His part is small but it doesn’t matter.

Because he is the kind of actor only Hollywood of a certain era would have utilized to his full potential. Why does any of this relate to the discussion of this film? My best explanation is the fact Human Desire is not a standalone entry. It comes from a lineage boasting Emile Zola and Jean Renoir’s Le Bete Humaine. And yet Human Desire can be viewed as nothing less than noir cranked out of the salt mines of Hollywood.

The traditions of Michel Carne and Jean Renoir, themselves in the late 30s, coalesced with the early works of Fritz Lang, like M (1931), to form a sturdy foundation to this American iteration of crime cinema. There’s no doubt Lang and Renoir were aware of each other. An obvious point of reference is the fact Lang would adapt La Chienne into a film of his own — Scarlet Street.

Human Desire is his second go at the eminent Frenchman’s filmography, albeit less to his liking. Lang’s railroad imagery isn’t quite on par with the evocative ever smoky grittiness of Renoir’s earlier effort and part of it must be chalked up to interiors which strip away much of the rail tie reality.

In even brief interludes there could be overlap with the work of the Frenchman’s father or other famed realist artists of generations before and there are quite a few lighter, brighter tones, although Le Bete Humaine is still a notable precursor to noir cinematography.

But then it gets dicey because Lang himself came out of the other tradition which all but berthed the dark genre, German Expression, with films like M or American pictures like Fury and You Only Live Once, unmistakable for their equally brooding imagery.

Renoir has an appreciation for the everyman’s daily life as it pertains to this world of grunge and brutality. There manages to be something real, this animal magnetism — a literal madness that somehow feels more authentic.

Lang picks up solely on the total bleakness of a canvas bathed in black. It’s suffocating in that sense. He also functions better within the facades and inherent artificiality of the Hollywood system. Renoir tried it too, and it proved more stifling than productive. Lang, perhaps out of necessity, used the resources more to his advantage.

After the stirring success of The Big Heat, he comes back with his two stars in Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame to do it again. It’s unfairly overshadowed even as Grahame turns in a blistering, merciless performance as a conniving wife. But as with all black widows, the exterior begins demure and innocent enough. It only evolves and becomes more malevolently deadly as time marches on.

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The newfound lens of a returning soldier fits into the context of the era. Because Human Desire is a story revamped for 1950s America, and it translates itself easily enough. Jeff Warren (Ford) is coming home from the army with ideals of a steady job, fishing on weekends, and nights at the movies with a pretty girl. It presents this fresh exterior just waiting to be dragged through the mire.

Because the conventions of American-grade noir, in particular, make for a compelling tale of lust and sleaze. Not that they were entirely absent in Renoir’s picture but they have a different effect.

Human Desire throws together a femme fatale and a formerly clean-cut veteran whose eyes bulge out of his sockets the first time he snatches a glance at the girl. They are not perpetrators of murder by they are implicated in the following courtroom proceedings with Warren complicit in a cover-up. There is a streamlined love triangle between Ford, Grahame, and Broderick Crawford that rarely feels interesting on its own merits.

At its best, it lives out its existence on the screen as a low-grade railway riff on Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. There are obvious antecedents in its French predecessor but somehow in this context, it seems applicable to canonize it as noir. Emile Zola never felt closer to James M. Cain.

I could only consider the very concrete plot points, not the literary styles themselves. Because Human Desire, of course, is not literary at all — or if it, it is only in the pulpy seediness such entertainment engendered.

Renoir could actually claim some basis in Zola’s literature, not simply by his pedigree but also by evoking the words themselves. Regardless, the two creatures have their distinct appeals for two diverse camps. There’s no question the two helmsmen were a pair of phenomenal craftsman deserving individual repute. The differences in them are as beguiling as the similarities. The same might be said of Human Desire and its forefather. Choose your poison and my guess is you won’t be disappointed either way.

3.5/5 Stars

The Southerner (1945)

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It’s easy to infer there is an innate kinship between famed director Jean Renoir and the folks within this picture. Certainly, he was no peasant, by any means related to those found in Millet’s The Gleaners. However, like his painterly father Auguste Renoir (a figure I always find myself reverting back to) he had a penchant for people and nature underlined by a genteel eye for beauty.

That is not to say, Jean was exactly the same. His films can often be socially-minded, capable of both satire and commentary. But underlying such themes is always this same sense of natural and artistic pulchritude.

Though his output in the states is generally forgotten, upon closer analysis, efforts like The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) and The Woman on The Beach (1947) have glimmers of his brilliance as an auteur. We can even see how the content often fit Renoir, though the system and in some cases, the performers might not have.  However, in its day, most everyone seemed to agree that of all his efforts as an expatriate, The Southerner was his finest achievement stateside. I don’t disagree.

At its core, Zachary Scott gives an understated performance full of grit and common decency as the head of the Tucker clan. Right beside him, his wife, Nona (Betty Field) exhibits a stalwart character exuding both affection and maternal grace, a constant rock to steady her man. In an inciting event that feels strikingly similar to The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Gramps dies and the family sets out on a pilgrimage in search of a new life. This will eventually lead them to a strip of land to call their own.

While Scott’s no Henry Fonda, I’m pretty sure even John Ford would consider Jean Renoir his equal if not a superior director. Regardless, both are visual filmmakers of the most visceral kind. In fact, Poetic Realism was an attempt to put a label on Renoir’s exquisite naturalism, placing the human form in environments like modern day evocations of the Garden of Eden in an otherwise sullied world. A Day in The Country (1936) or even Toni (1938) stand as stunning earlier examples from his native France.

Compared to his other American efforts, The Southerner has the most straightforward and even conventional narrative. Because the story is simplistic and the dialogue unadorned; at it’s worst it’s throwaway. However, it effectively provides a bulwark for Renoir to capture strains of humanity with a truth that gleams with his usual sensibilities. Again, like Ford, such a minimal plot frees him up for digressions that are more lyrical and character based so by the end of the picture as short as it is, we feel like we have witnessed something full-bodied and singular.

The Tuckers have the most darling little kids. Beulah Bondi subverts her angelic image as the cackling, particularly ornery granny. Their new life is hard, their resources scant, and yet the Tuckers are cisterns full to the brim with indefatigable spirit. Sam is driven by the humble desire of Man to cultivate his own land. He never says it implicitly but God was a Creator and so it’s almost innate for him to want to do some of the same.

But Tucker, like Job, is born to trouble with backbreaking labor and constant devastation. His boy is stricken with sickness needing nutrition from vegetables, lemons, and milk that they either don’t have or can’t afford. The Tuckers live by a creed of family and neighborliness but they receive no such charity from those nearest to them. It’s like the gruff farmer next door is seeking to see them fail. Nature too is all but looking to sink them. There’s no amount of clemency

In one pleading moment, Tucker even walks out to his decimated crop he’s toiled over for so long and talks to God in the most candid of ways. It’s like a modern-day psalmist asking the honest questions. His resolution is to keep going and hold his family together thanks to the unremitting determination shared by his wife.

However, overlaid on this is also the struggle between the new urban centers and all the natural wonders of God’s green earth. We saw it in Renoir films such as The Human Beast (1938). In Sam’s case, his friend all but guarantees him a steady factory job and yet he continually balks at the chance. His calling is to be in the fields no matter how inexorable his opposition might prove to be.

The beauty is that we get a bit of a reprieve from the constant barrage of misfortune. It comes in the form of a wedding when two jolly old folks get hitched and it births the most joyous occasion. Partying ensues full of good-old-fashioned gaiety and square dancing brimming over with laughter and hilarious antics made 10 times more humorous in the company of others. Each and every one of them is a part of this grand joke. The Job-like assaults keep on coming and yet in the company of others they hardly seem as catastrophic. There you have a secret to life.

I rather like the conclusion Renoir’s film makes tacitly. It’s quite evident in the following aphorism voiced by one of the characters, “It takes all kinds to make up this world.” So this is not the Romanticist where everything mechanical and technological is inherently bad. Nor is farming or the land being tilled and cultivated any less important. They share equal footing and they need each other.

Again, it’s the humanism of Renoir fully realized. This is an American story, the most American narrative undertaken by the French director. However, in the waning days of WWII, you cannot help but see this as a universal rallying cry. Out of the ashes of destruction and international animosity, ill-will, and hatred, we need each other. Come to think of it, the credo is a timeless one at that. We could use these words now as much as we ever did. There you have a secret to the relevance of Jean Renoir.

4/5 Stars

Diary of a Chambermaid (1946)

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If Bunuel’s well-remembered adaptation of this material is considerably darker and biting as his pictures always seem to be, then Jean Renoir’s version is fittingly consistent with his own sentiments and oeuvre.

Celestine, as played by the ever precocious Paulette Goddard, looks to be one to tear asunder the stately tranquility of the estate she has been hired to serve at. But in fact what we are met with over time is quite the opposite and that’s one of the great ironies of this film.

Another is the fact that Renoir was called upon to make such a satire under the Hollywood production codes. He is no Bunuel and still, there is a certain anarchy and irreverence that can be taken from many of his native works.

You have only to look at Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) or is acclaimed masterpiece Rules of the Game (1939) to see the social commentary at work. There is the same upstairs, downstairs dynamic and the pronounced divide between those with means and those who serve those with means.

Paulette Goddard gives a fine showing in the title role that puts her plucky and radiant chambermaid front and center. Whereas she often played opposite a romantic lead like a Chaplin or even Bob Hope, this is her picture and that’s a refreshing change of pace.

What she provides is her usual brand of bodacious energy that carries along her cohort Rose (Irene Ryan) and stands up to the severe and misogynistic valet Joseph (Francis Lederer) who has been in faithful service to the Lanlaire family for 10 years. It sets the tone for the entire picture but it also subsequently reveals that everyone in her vicinity has their own agenda.

There’s Joseph who much like her would love to leave behind his current life for a life of privilege and good fortune. Meanwhile, the controlling Madame Lanlaire (Judith Anderson) wants to use Celestine’s services and certain attributes to help keep her grown son (Hurd Hatfield) at home. She’s suffocated him for an entire lifetime.

The demure, bearded Mr. Lanlaire feels more at ease with Celestine than with his own wife and his feuding next door neighbor the idiosyncratic Captain Mauger (Goddard’s husband and the film’s screenwriter Burgess Meredith) wants to steal Celestine away and hire her on to work at his own estate. He’s even ready to propose marriage and give her nice things if only she’d accept.

So in a sense, if you want to look at the film in very basic terms, Celestine has numerous suitors. One who shares her personal aspirations. One who shares her romantic love. One who makes life a great deal more fun for her and so on. Though only one can end up with her in the end.

It is an admittedly strange circumstance to have a French director of such repute as Renoir directing an English language film from French source material no less. How we ended up with such a project is befuddling. But rather than get caught up in the incongruities it’s suitable to enjoy them for what they are. It could have been a shambles.

I am reminded of Vittorio De Sica’s Terminal Station (1953) that fell under Selznick’s control and was recut and reissued as Indiscretions of An American Wife. The conflicting visions proved to be a disaster.

Here it works to a satisfactory degree. It’s shot and feels like a Renoir film even if the actors themselves or the system they are working in does not. But a Hollywood exterior does not make this film impervious to improprieties. While in some respects it relieves the picture of its claws, there’s nevertheless yet another irony found therein, though the facade must be first pulled away.

It’s so eccentric and giddy with all the flourishes of classical Hollywood and quality supporting actors that it makes us almost forget the strange even indecent behavior that comes to pass. That’s because it’s a Hollywood picture and not a French one.

Furthermore, just because the action is set in France and orchestrated by a French director does not instantly mean that this is a satire of that society alone. Are we so blind as to see the conflicts and relational quibbles that dissect this film as being so far removed from our own?

Surely we don’t have any stratospheres like this or any people with these kinds of behavior in the United States? Charming and unrepressed chambermaids. Brooding men who are bent on vengeance. Mothers willing to use the allure of other women to manipulate their children into still loving them. I can’t speak to any of these things directly but only know we’re often more alike than we would care to admit.

So enjoy Renoir’s Chambermaid on the perfunctory level if you wish. It’s a quirky backroom comedy-drama bolstered by winsome Paulette Goddard. But if you want to see it for something more you may — a satire, a veiled look at risque themes, and anything else you can discern within its frames.

3.5/5 Stars

The Woman on the Beach (1947)

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The Woman on the Beach is ripe with subject matter that feels akin to Jean Renoir as much as any Hollywood picture possibly could be. Since the beach, in his specific case, initially evokes not the California coasts but the shores that might have so easily cropped up in the paintings of his renowned father Auguste Renoir. Marrying that preconception with the domain of beguiling femme fatales makes it all the more disconcerting.

But this is also a story of what it is to be an artist and you can see Renoir using the materials at his disposal to grapple with such themes which were no doubt ruminating in his own mind.

Like any director of irrefutable substance, Renoir was probably aspiring to do far more with the medium than his American backers would have preferred and that could explain why his movie was cut down from an unspecified length into the version we now have.

It’s true that the film is yet another collision of worlds with a tortured American tough guy like Robert Ryan paired with a French master of composition and commentary like Renoir. But far from being a mere incomprehensible jumble, the results are still revelatory if not quite flawless.

The opening underwater dreamscape proves to be an entrancing interlude as it plays out in Robert Ryan’s subconscious, brought to us by a self-imposed exile like Renoir no doubt with obstacles of his own to do battle with.

If we want to try and be standard in our appraisal of the picture by providing the cadence of the plot, it’s about a Coast Guard officer (Robert Ryan) stationed on the West Coast who is taken with a woman (Joan Bennett) he comes across when she is picking up firewood on the beach.

There’s an almost uncanny lucidity to how she pinpoints his deepest fears in their initial encounter and they come to the conclusion that they’re pretty much alike. How Peggy Butler can be so sure is slightly beyond the point. Certainly, it doesn’t make sense in rational terms.

Here again, we are met with the bewitching gaze of Joan Bennett that first came to my attention in a portrait found within a dream of a film called Woman in the Window (1944). She’s undoubtedly one of the underrated noir sirens out there because she was one of the preeminent talents in casting a spell of enchantment to entangle her male companions. Ryan falters much like Edward G. Robinson did previously, twice over.

Charles Bickford gives a performance of equal import as the blind artist Tod Butler, a man who is as attached to his work — a passion that he can no longer realize — as much as he is to his wife. They want to get rid of him in one moment and they think he’s faking his frailty in another but all these preoccupations fall by the wayside.

Thus, The Woman on the Beach cannot be branded as a pure film-noir but instead a vein of those crime pictures grafted with Renoir’s own sensibilities. Even if the studio knew in part what they were getting, it still makes sense that they were not completely satisfied.

It looks to be one of those sordid love triangles that were always a mainstay of film noir but, again even in its short running time with footage lopped off, it works beyond that and despite Hollywood’s best efforts (whether intentionally or not), Renoir’s going to have a voice.

To a degree, it’s possible to see some sort of progression from Le Bete Humaine (1938) in its stylized atmospherics highlighted by billowing smoke, psychological duress, and oh yes, an alluring gal playing opposite Jean Gabin in Simone Simon.

Aside from the luminescent Bennett, a few other ideas leave a lasting impression whether it’s the turmoil of an artist caught in the throes of obsession or the dreams that overtake a man plagued by post-traumatic stress. This picture has more to offer than you might expect.

It brings to mind John Huston’s Red Badge of Courage (1951) another cannibalized picture that in its present form is about two-thirds of a minor masterpiece. There’s still an exceptional spirit and resonance to what was leftover. It can only lead us to imagine what might have been on both accounts.

This would prove to be Renoir’s last film in the States before he washed his hands of the whole industry and returned to his native land to continue the creation of high-regarded works like he had never left. True, this is a picture that is often neglected but that’s simply because there are other works of great repute. That does not speak entirely to the detriment of The Woman on the Beach.

3.5/5 Stars

A Day in the Country (1936)

adayinthe1It’s only 40 minutes — hardly a feature film and more of a featurette, but Jean Renoir’s truncated work, A Day in the Country, is nonetheless still worth the time. Admittedly, I still have yet to venture to France and I hope to do that someday soon, but this film propagates marvelous visions of the countryside that resonate with all of us no matter where we hail from. Those quiet jaunts out in nature. Sunny days perfectly suited for a lazy afternoon picnic. Peacefully gliding down the river as men fish on the bank contentedly.

Our little vignette opens at a calm seaside fishing getaway where a group of Parisians journeyed for a little relaxation away from the city limits. Among their ranks are the worldly but personable Monsieur Dufour and his bubbly wife. They are accompanied on the adventure by their pleasant daughter Henriette and the peculiar shop assistant Rodolphe.  Their arrival in the country is full of gaiety and playful interludes reminiscent of the decadently sensuous works of Rococo artists Watteau and Fragonard, most specifically The Swing.

Two young men named Henri and Rodolphe spy the recently arrived female travelers and are immediately intrigued. As veteran fishermen, they’re prepared to set out their bait,  cast their lines, and hook their catches for an afternoon of harmless enough fun.

adayinthe2As always these characters set up Renoir’s juxtaposition of luscious extravagance with the earthier lifestyle of the lower classes. However, there is a geniality pulsing through this film, with Mrs. Dufour exclaiming how polite these young men are–they must be of good stock, obviously not tradesmen. Even Mr. Dufour is a good-natured old boy who gets fed up with the elderly grandmother, but he willingly takes the boys charity and advice when it comes to the prime fishing holes.

There is only one point of true drama, in the melodramatic sense of the word, and that’s when Henri takes Henriette to a secluded to observe a bird up in the treetops and proceeds to try and kiss her amorously. It’s a quick sequence, initially met with rebuke and finally accepted in a moment that will leave an indelible mark on both their lives.

It’s the quintessential wistful love that can never be that we’ve seen countless times in film and television series. Time passes and  Henriette comes back with the image of that place and Henri with it, emblazoned on her mind. They reunite, but again, this time, it cannot be either because Henriette is now married. She is spoken for and there’s nothing that Henri can logically do about it. That’s where our tale ends. Certainly, there could have been more, but we don’t necessarily need anything.

adayinthe3We get the essence of what is there and we can still thoroughly enjoy Renoir’s composition. His is a fascination in naturalistic beauty where he nevertheless stages his narrative to unfold in time. But really this mise-en-scene created by the woods, and meadows, trees, and rivers really function as another character altogether. And when all the players interact it truly not only elicits tremendous joy but an appreciation for Renoir’s so-called Poetic Realism. Whether he’s capturing a woman swinging jubilantly on a swing or framing a shot within the trees, we cannot help but tip our hat to his artistic vision. If his father Auguste was one of the great painters of the impressionist era, then Jean was certainly one of the most prodigious filmmakers of his generation, crafting his own pieces of impressionistic realism. In fact, with father and son, you can see exactly how art forms can overlap on canvas and celluloid. They truly share a fascination in some of the same subjects. Universal things like nature and human figures interacting in the expanses of such environments. It’s beautiful really, even in its pure simplicity.

4.5/5 Stars

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

boudu1“He spat on Balzac!”

Jean Renoir always had a preoccupation with class divides and Boudu showcases that same blatant juxtaposition of class, or more precisely, the lifestyles of the middle class versus a lowly tramp. Except in this specific instance, the tramp (the indelible Michel Simon) could care less about the gap. He thumbs his nose at any charity and makes no effort to conform to the reins put on him by the reputable of middle-class society.

The man who steps to the fore is a middle-aged married bookkeeper who has the hots for his housekeeper. With his wandering spyglass, he spots the hapless Boudu jump into the Seine. From that point, he leaps into action toddling out to the street followed by the crowds of onlookers. He’s the first to plunge himself into the depths to bring the unfortunate soul to safety, and his middle-class brethren laud him for his supreme act of charity. But Monsieur Lestingois does not stop there, insisting that the wretched man be brought to his nearby flat.

boudu4Soon Boudu is wrapped up in middle-class luxury that he didn’t ask for, at the behest of Edouard who takes an initial liking to this bushy-haired man he happened upon. After all, he is intent on playing savior and Boudu obliges. It’s in these forthcoming scenes that Renoir examines class in a satirical way, feeling rather like a precursor to some of Bunuel’s later work, without the religious undertones. And yet for some reason, we cannot help but like Boudu a lot more. True, he is loud, messy, rude and unruly, but there’s something undeniably charming about his life philosophy. There are no pretenses or false fronts. He lets it all hang out there. In this regard, Michel Simon is the most extraordinary of actors, existing as a caricature with seemingly so little effort at all. He steals every scene whether he’s propped up between two door frames or cutting out a big swath of his beard for little reason.

In the meantime, he wears their clothes and eats their food, but he doesn’t have to concede to their rules. Boudu ends up winning the lottery of 100,000 francs, while unwittingly stealing away his esteemed benefactor’s unhappy wife. Whereas Boudu has the audacity to do the unthinkable out in plain view, he’s perhaps the most brutally honest character in the film. Everyone else veils their vices and hides their true intentions behind good manners and closed doors. But there has to be a point where all parties involved are outed and the moment comes when husband and wife simultaneously catch each other.

boudu3Charity in a sense is met with scorn, but it feels more nuanced than, say, Bunuel’s Viridianna (1961). In many ways, Boudu seems like a proud individual or at least an independent one. He hardly asks for the charity of the wealthy, and he’s content with his lot in life, even to the extent of death. It’s also not simply chaos for the sake of it, and he hardly lowers himself to the debauchery of Bunuel’s unruly bunch. Still, he obviously rubs the more civilized classes the wrong way, by scandalizing their way of life and trampling on their social mores without much thought. It’s perfectly summed up by the last straw when  a fuming Edouard incredulously exclaims, “He spat on Balzac.” The nerve!

The ultimate irony is that Boudu ends up in the water once again, and he’s not the only one this time. This also serves to take Renoir back into his element, because he’s always at his best in the great outdoors where the natural beauty of parks and rivers become his greatest ally in his misc en scene. Still, his framing of shots always gives way to a beautiful overall composition inside and out. Boudu is no different. You simply have to sit back and enjoy it like a pleasant outing on the Seine.

4/5 Stars

Grand Illusion (1937)

GrandeIllusionI’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been bred on a certain brand of war movie, but I naively went into Grand Illusion expecting a typical P.O.W. drama. In the back of my mind, I was even ready to compare this title to later works like Stalag 17 (1953) or The Great Escape (1963). Honestly, what was I thinking? With a Jean Renoir film no less.

But that’s the marvelous quality of this film. On the surface level, it looks like an archetype that we are used to. War is being waged. Soldiers are captured. Soldiers are trying to escape. In this case, the particulars are a group of French P.O.W.s in a German camp during WWI. You have the basic idea certainly, but you will not understand the power of this film with such a description. With such a set-up you expect Germans to be the craven villains and the French to be the courageous boys making their nation proud. But that’s not quite the case. It’s more complicated than that.

It’s no surprise that this film was banned by Mussolini, confiscated by Goebbels after the invasion of France, and shown in a private screening to FDR. Certainly, WWII had not started yet, but in 1937 Hitler was on the rise and a wave of fascism mixed with patriotism was flooding Europe. In the midst of such a climate, Jean Renoir, a master of so-called poetic realism, lays down a film like this. It has war, it has patriotism, and it even has enemy factions, but the difference is that Renoir gives them humanity. He casts even his “enemy” in a sympathetic light and suggests that there is a humanity that lies inside of human beings of all different classes, creeds, and nationalities (but he also acknowledges racial discrimination still exists).

Early on in the film von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) shoots down two enemy flyers in Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Marechal (Jean Gabin). However, instead of sending them away to the prisoner of war camp, he shows them the ultimate form of hospitality by inviting them to dine at his table. The cynic inside of me thought, “this must be a trap, a gimmick of some kind because he is a German after all, and they’re supposed to be the villains.” Pretty narrow-minded of me, and of course nothing happens. They share a meal and even find some common ground before going off to the camp.

This next part of the film reminds me the most of a film like Stalag 17 because there is the camaraderie, the mixing of all sorts of different people, but they are all fighting against a common enemy so there is a solidarity between them. For instance, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) shares his lavish care packages from back home, Cartier keeps things lively as a former vaudeville performer who is constantly cracking jokes, and even Boledieu, who is of an aristocratic background is generally well liked by everyone. Together they undertake the project of escaping the camp.

Of course, there’s still time for musical performances with song and drag and impromptu renditions of “La Marseillaise.” For such a disturbance Marechal (Gabin) gets solitary confinement, but there never seems to be any malice behind it. It feels more like the protocol of war, and he is let out soon enough. The way things work out the gang is transferred all to different camps and their tunnel is utterly wasted.

De Boldieu and Marechal’s final stop is literally a fortress that is run by their old acquaintance, the now badly maimed Von Rauffenstein. He is as civil as he has ever was but still advises them not to try escape. All the same, he regrets his reassignment and seems generally wistful about the whole situation. Meanwhile, the two officers once again come in contact with Rosenthal. The trio puts together a planned diversion led by De Boldieu which will let the other two escape. It puts von Rauffenstein in another regrettable position, but Rosenthal and Marechal do get away.

As fugitives, their dispositions fluctuate from positivity to loathing, and finally a contented state of comfort when they stay at the farmhouse of a young German woman named Elsa (Dita Parlo from L’Atalante). This is another section of the film that highlights human relationships in an extraordinary way. We expect her to be totally poisoned against “the enemy” and yet she is not. Elsa seems to see the human beings behind the French uniforms and comes to trust and almost rely on their companionship. As Rosenthal recovers from a leg injury, Marechal and Elsa get closer and closer. The time comes for the two men to leave and it is an absolutely heart-wrenching goodbye. It’s so different than our initial preconceptions.

And soon after the film ends, not with some dramatic capturing or even really a chase. But the two men get across the border to snowy Switzerland and that’s where we leave them. Except not with the usual jadedness or even the adrenaline rush of a run-of-the-mill war thriller. Grand Illusion is more piercing than that, speaking to the relationships that can cross war zones if we are only willing to see them.

Jean Gabin is a wonderfully honest-faced actor and the closest description I can give is a man with a Spencer Tracy-like visage except more imposing. Marcell Dalio did some wonderful work with Renoir, and it is unfortunate that he was relegated to such small roles in films like Casablanca, but he is nevertheless even memorable in that. Erich von Stroheim was a titan in his own right as a director and actor, but he was somewhat of a fading star by this point. However, he plays his character with a civility and sense of honor which I have never quite seen equaled before. It was a special performance that reflects a dying breed. The aristocratic soldier of the highest order in all circumstances.

Renoir himself summed up the film years later as being about human relationships and fittingly said the following: “I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world.” Here is a master recognizing such a vital key to our very humanity — our personal interactions with one another.

5/5 Stars

L’Atalante (1934)

LatalanteHere is perhaps one of the greatest wedding processions we could ever hope to see. Buster Keaton is more outrageously funny in Seven Chances, but this one is solemn, and somehow still funny in its own way. And that’s what is most striking about L’Atalante (which also serves as the name of the boat of choice). This film seems so serious and strait-laced, you might say, and yet it brims with comedy. It’s the type of everyday comedy that makes us laugh even now. Funny looking characters, odd voices, a plethora of cats all over the place. There’s no way for that to get lost in translation, and it remains quirky and engaging 80 years later.

It also happens to be a beautiful film exemplified by a newly-wedded bride walking the prow of a boat with the fog billowing around her. Or perhaps it’s two lovers embracing passionately and a smile bursting on the face of the woman. It’s so visceral, so engaging in its displays of love, energy, and emotion. In this way, it brings to mind other love stories of the age like Sunrise, It Happened One Night, and certainly the early works of Jean Renoir. Except the thing here is that director Jean Vigo never made another film after L’Atalante. He entered bad health even during filming and died soon afterward in his early 30s, but he left behind a masterpiece.

In short, the story revolves around four main characters living life together on a boat named L’Atalante. Jean is the captain and groom who has picked a beautiful wife named Juliette who is going to share his existence on the sea. His first mate is the weathered and scruffy Pere Jules. He might have a rough exterior, but he and his cabin boy are full of bumbling and buffoonery that endears them to all.

For the two lovebirds, Paris is the enchanting destination for a fantastic makeshift honeymoon, but it also proves to test their relationship from the get-go, since Jean is extremely jealous and a street peddler openly flirts with Juliette. It’s a tragic turn in their love story which leads to Juliette looking for a way home and Jean sinking into a state of depression aboard his boat. That’s what makes their ultimate reunion all the sweeter.

Thus, L’Atalante blends a timeless topic like love with little moments of magic that bubble up from within these scenes. Whether it is Juliette walking the streets window shopping, or Pere Jules giving a lens into his past with all the souvenirs he has accrued over the years. Without a doubt, he was my favorite character. I have never quite seen anything like him.

4.5/5 Stars

The Rules of the Game (1939)

bcb9f-la_regle_du_jeuThis French film directed by Jean Renoir is a light comedy that turns into a critique of the Upper classes. The film involves the superficial events and racy love affairs as only the French can have. It opens as a famous aviator lands his plane only to be disappointed that his married lover did not come to see him. Soon we learn that her husband has a mistress of his own. Put these four together,  Renoir in his jolly role of Octave, all the other guests, then the many servants, and soon you have a major spectacle. They dine, hunt, gossip, put on a show, quarrel, and above all fall in love. It is all fun and games however until someone gets hurt. Although this film is not what we may be accustomed to in our present generation, it is easy to appreciate the satire, cinematography, and ensemble cast. Kudos to Renoir for making a very intriguing film.

4.5/5 Stars