Sunday, July 29, 2012


I've been meaning to undertake this project for a while. It's to my great shame that I have, as of yet, not ventured beyond The 400 Blows in Francois Truffaut's decades-spanning Antoine Doinel series. Though a revered and influential staple of French cinema, since the release of Criterion's The Adventures of Antoine Doinel boxed set several years ago, the films have waited on my shelf, eternally marked as "for later."

The idea has always been to have an Antoine Doinel summer. This was inspired, fittingly enough, by real-life circumstance that involved both youth and romantic folly. For a couple of years in the mid-00s, I worked in a mom-and-pop video store that specialized in less-mainstream fare. We had a popular "directors wall" where films were organized based on who made them. Most of the famous directors had sections. Featured artists were chosen based on their body of work and reputation. Some filmmakers, like Tim Burton, would lose their space after too many turkeys. The old guard, like Truffaut, however, had a permanent rack.

One summer, a college-aged girl and her mother came in and rented The 400 Blows and stated their intent to watch the Doinel series front to back as a joint venture over the girl's seasonal break. The girl had been in before. She was studying film and was friendly to talk to. She was also very attractive. We didn't have cards at the store, customers were stored in our database and rented movies by giving their name. Accounts could also have nicknames, and we would give them to customers who we wanted to remember because we liked them or because they were jerks. After conversing with this girl about her summer viewing plans, I changed her nickname to Truffaut. All the guys working there knew about her. She was very crushable. We weren't skeevy about it (or I hope not) but one always looked forward to being able to say "Truffaut came in today..."

There's more to this particular story, but I'll save it. I am guessing it might fit one of the later films. Or it will be the ending to my personal survey of The Adventures of Antoine Doinel. It only really has one other facet, and it ends in the summer of 2007, when Michelangelo Antonioni died. (It wasn't his fault; it just seems significant that it was the exact same time.)

The 400 Blows is a film marking many firsts. It's the start of the series, but it's also Francois Truffaut's feature debut. Though the second picture for star Jean-Pierre Léaud--he was in an adventure movie directed by Georges Lampin--it was his first lead role. The young actor was 15 years old at the time, and The 400 Blows would set him off on a grand career--Léaud is still working, and recently had a memorable part in Le Havre [review]--but he will always be best known as Truffaut's double.

Antoine Doinel is a young boy growing up in Paris. He is an imaginative child with an active sense of humor and not much interest in his schoolwork. Antoine regularly gets in trouble with his teacher, whom he has nicknamed "Sourpuss," and his mother (Claire Maurier, Amelie) is at her wit's end with the kid. His father (Renoir-regular Albert Rémy) is a joker, too, and is for the time being more sympathetic to Antoine's growing pains. This balance will shift multiple times throughout The 400 Blows. The Doinels are not bad people, just inconsistent.

After several mishaps--including lying about his mother being dead to get out of being punished for ditching class--Antoine is suspended from school and, rather than go home and face parental wrath, he decides to run away and learn to make his way on his own. He hides out with his best friend René (Patrick Auffay), and they spend idle days scamming money and watching movies. Not a huge deal is made out of it, but mention is made that Antoine is obsessed with cinema. Random shots on the Paris streets regularly show him passing by movie theatres, and we catch brief glimpses of their marquees. The happiest time we see the whole family enjoy together as a unit is when they go out to see Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us. Mother, father, and son all debate its merits in the car on the way home--Dad says it wasn't funny, but Mom praises the film's depth--and Antoine is actively engaged.

It all goes wrong after that. Ironically, in trying to do well, Antoine blunders and that is when he is bounced from school. Eventually, he gets busted for returning a typewriter he stole--another ironic comeuppance--and he is sent away to reform school. Or, as they call it, "observation center." What will be observed is the boy's behavior, and it will be decided where he should go after that. One of the best scenes in The 400 Blows is a montage of Antoine's psychiatric evaluation. Henri Decaë's camera acts as the interrogator, staring across a table at the delinquent. Antoine opens up here. No equivocation, no storytelling. With no more reason to lie, he explains himself in reasonable terms. Jean-Pierre Léaud owns the scene. He is comfortable and natural, talking directly into the lens, living every memory as if it were real.

The success of The 400 Blows is really the success of Jean-Pierre Léaud. Truffaut and Marcel Moussy have written an excellent script, crafting a detailed coming-of-age narrative that is unique in its details and honest about the confusion of adolescence; yet, it's territory that is familiar and requires a true personality to sell it. Léaud commands the attention of the screen, but he never seems to be acting. His technique is transparent. He is up there just behaving. One can guess that Truffaut gave him a lot of free rein, and certain scenes suggest playful improvisation, as if the director had concocted scenarios that would encourage his young actor to be himself and roll with the moment. A sequence like the one where Antoine rides the spinning wheel can't be faked. That's really Jean-Pierre Léaud fooling around in there.

At this stage, Antoine has much in common with classic rebel figures. There is a rather obvious nod to James Dean, with Léaud more than once pulling his black turtleneck up over his mouth. Yet, unlike, say, a Holden Caulfield, Antoine still has a certain amount of innocence--he is scared to go to hookers; he is oblivious to the wrongness of plagiarism--and lacks a destructive nature. He never really resorts to violence or random vandalism; there doesn't seem to be a desire to obliterate the self. His problem is he's itching to do something, anything, and he's not sure what that would be. He is waiting for his "Eureka!" moment, the one he read about in Balzac (quoting Archimedes).

No discussion of Antoine's coming of age or of The 400 Blows is possible without talking about its ending--so cover your eyes if you haven't seen the film, here there be SPOILERS. The last shot of The 400 Blows is a famous one. After escaping from the reform school, Antoine keeps running until he reaches the sea. On the beach, he heads straight for the water. Is there freedom out there in the waves? Or could this be a suicidal impulse? Neither, probably. Léaud's face is almost blank. He is drawn by the metaphor of the open sea, but driven by impulse more than conscious design. Regardless, Antoine actually stops before going into the water. He stops and turns, almost as if called, and looks directly at the camera. Freeze frame.

We are left to ponder Antoine's expression. It's ambiguous. Some might argue it's hopeful, others might argue uncertainty, but for me, it suggests he has had some kind of "Eureka!" moment at last. He has reached the edge, and peered out into the openness and realized there is nothing beyond him, only what is behind him. He has his freedom, but it lacks definition. He might have undone the shackles, but now it's up to him to make something of himself. There is no one else who will do it for him. It's the same thing we see on the faces of the newlyweds at the end of The Graduate [review]: this is not what was promised.

Will he take those next steps into manhood? Will Antoine Doinel become an adult? Only time and the next movie in the series will tell...

Friday, July 20, 2012


The most telling business in the 1938 film version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion comes about 2/3 of the way into the story, and it would be easy to dismiss as a throwaway comedic bit if you aren’t paying attention. Professor Henry Higgins (played by Leslie Howard, who also co-directed) is walking up his staircase, delivering what he assumes will be the last word in an argument. No sooner has he punctuated his sentence than he trips on the stairs and completely undermines the authority he has so tenuously laid out. Howard has a quick reaction before he gathers himself up and goes the rest of the way up the stairs, and in that nearly imperceptible instance, he sets the stage for the changes to come. In that moment, Henry Higgins experiences doubt in his own perfection.

It’s the cap of one of my two favorite scenes in the Leslie Howard/Anthony Asquith production of Pygmalion. Shaw’s play was based on the classic myth of the sculptor who chiseled his own perfect woman and brought her to life, and it would later be the basis of the musical My Fair Lady [review]. This brisk pre-War production is a better realization of Shaw’s original, however, sticking closer to the complex ideas. Indeed, it should, since Shaw wrote the screenplay himself. Pygmalion is a philosophical drama masquerading as a romantic comedy, and the Lerner and Loewe adaptation leans heavier on the light heart without working as hard to justify it.

For the unfamiliar, Professor Higgins is a linguist who specializes in British dialect. On a night out observing Cockney accents in the wild, he meets both one of his more revered colleagues, Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland), and a common flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (the splendid Wendy Hiller in her first role). Higgins makes an offhand comment about being able to tame the girl’s wild speech to such a degree that anyone would believe her a proper lady, and though he thinks nothing of it after it is said, Eliza takes it to heart. She shows up at his house the next day and asks to be given elocution lessons. Higgins and Pickering do her one better, concocting a scheme to transform the lower-class working girl completely.

What follows is a grueling course of language lessons, makeovers, and etiquette classes, culminating in a night out where Eliza charms the upper crust. The point now proved, Higgins thinks his work with the girl is complete. She is distraught at having been abandoned so completely, having harbored feelings for her stern teacher. (I am sure someone has written on the father issues at work here; Eliza’s own father is a drunken lout (Wilfrid Lawson) who “sold” his daughter to Higgins for a five-pound note.) When she leaves, after having verbally gutted Higgins thoroughly and completely, Higgins realizes he has feelings for her as well.

It’s actually that post-party sequence that ends in Higgins stumbling on the stairs. So many previously buried issues are dug up in that scene, it ends up being more memorable than even the heavier conversation in Pygmalion’s penultimate sequence, when the pair has it out for real. In this earlier argument, Shaw’s writing proves more agile. Higgins and especially Eliza say plenty of important things to each other without saying them outright, and the way they dance around touchy topics ends up revealing more about who they are than had they been more overt in their expression. Eliza very clearly sees the division between the classes and knows what is expected in less savory male/female transactions; Higgins dismisses the humanity possessed by others in deference to his own pride. Comparisons are regularly made between the Pygmalion myth and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Shaw is clearly aware of the thematic connection. He goes so far as to have Higgins refer to Eliza as a “creature” here. She is not human, she is an invention. The teaching montages are filmed at odd angles, distorted and exaggerated, partially comedic and partially macabre, looking like the heightened reality of a mad scientist’s workshop in a horror movie. Eventually, Eliza does feel marginalized, as if she is less of a person, and thus her anger stems from getting no credit for putting Higgins’ teachings into practice. He thinks the tutoring is the be-all and end-all, the student is as immaterial as the original corpse from which Igor has pilfered the body parts.

Were he not to trip on his way out, it would be impossible to see Henry Higgins as anything but a vain, self-important monster himself. In Pygmalion, hubris is undermined by comedy. This is most effectively employed in my other favorite scene. It happens much earlier in the picture, the morning after the night Eliza first comes to Higgins’ home. When he and Pickering sit down for breakfast, the professor’s maid (Jean Cadell) lectures Higgins on how to properly behave with a woman in the house. All of the faults that she highlights, including swearing, impatience, and slovenliness, are ones that Higgins has no self-awareness of, even if they are obvious to everyone around him (including the audience). It’s Higgins’ greatest fault: an oversized self-regard.

Leslie Howard is quite good as Higgins. He’s easily better than Rex Harrison, who is more known for the role due to My Fair Lady. Harrison’s portrayal was all braggadocio, with the actor seeming to approach the part from a position far above it. His ego wouldn’t let him stoop to the ugliness the role requires. Howard gets the puffery, but he also gets the pettiness. He’s particularly childish and nasty before he finally humbles himself.

That said, the true star here is Wendy Hiller. She is marvelous as Eliza Doolittle. She deals with the early comedy quite readily, including a hilarious scene when Eliza gets her first real bath, but without ever condescending to the character. In her hands, Eliza is a pure being with admirable intentions: to make herself better. Her determination gives over to efficiency, and she proves how valuable she can be when given the proper respect and the proper tasks. (One wonders how this escaped being an example seized on by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique.) Her breakdown prior to her departure from Higgins’ house is heartbreaking--all the more so for the lack of histrionics. She approaches this perceived failure with the same determination she used to chase success.

This initial confrontation and the showdown that follows are both meaty and rich with ideas. The last “big” scene in Pygmalion shows the creation dismantling her creator piece by piece. Theirs is a layered argument, and one that you will likely end up conflicted about. There is no cut-and-dried meeting of the minds. Eliza asserts her independence and equality, and Higgins both accepts and applauds the same. He also maintains his own responsibility for her metamorphosis. She couldn’t have gotten there without him, and getting her there, ironically, has made him dependent on her. (A good modern analogue for this might be the dynamic between Don Draper and Peggy Olsen on Mad Men, particularly when considering the events in Season 5. Maybe, also, the film Secretary [review].) They acknowledge the common ground, they reaffirm their individual rights to traverse it, and then and only then can they come together under some semblance of love. What makes it interesting is that, in a way, they do this in order to accept more “traditional” roles of a male/female dynamic. The last line of Pygmalion is Higgins insisting that Eliza fetch his slippers, the ones that earlier she threw at his head. He doesn’t even look at her when he says it, and yet she’s happy to receive the command. It’s simultaneously conformist and iconoclastic. Rejection of a way of thinking opens the way to accepting it.

Both have grown and are happier for it, and they are now free to be who they want to be and, better yet, be that together.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

LE HAVRE - #619

This review originally appeared in The Portland Mercury.

Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is named for the French coastal town where it’s set. Huge metal containers pass through this port on their way to somewhere else. One such container is full of African refugees. When the door is cracked, a young boy (Blondin Miguel) makes a run for it. Stranded, he ends up hiding with Marcel (André Wilms), a harmless scoundrel known for his love of the vino. Marcel's wife has recently taken ill (Kati Outinen), and getting the kid to England gives the old man something to do while she’s in the hospital.

Le Havre has a quaint European affectation that’s both charming and inconsequential. The quirky small town pulls together to help Marcel, and they hold a benefit rock concert to pay off smugglers. Even the police turn a blind eye. The inspector in charge of the case (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) would rather be solving real crimes than chasing harmless immigrants. Darroussin is one of the film’s bright spots. With his smart patter, bowler hat, and moustache, he’s like an extra from Tintin [review].

Only Marcel's cranky neighbor, played by former wunderkind Jean-Pierre Léaud (The 400 Blows) goes against the community, though his snitching serves little function beyond instigating Le Havre’s third act.  By that time, the outcome of this little plot is never less than a foregone conclusion, a fact underlined by Timo Salminen’s melodramatic score in the final scenes. It’s blandly enjoyable, but really, Le Havre is just old-school Hollywood cheese filtered through a semi-ironic lens.

Kaurismäki (Leningrad Cowboys Go America [review]) has been peddling this same middling tone for several decades now. He’s like a Euro Woody Allen, dependable and occasionally surprising, but also somewhat dated. Le Havre feels like a leftover from an international film festival circa 1994. 

Friday, July 13, 2012


Been meaning to post this for a couple of weeks. My friend Joëlle Jones did a commission for Contempt [seen here] that turned out so great, the buyer asked her to do Breathless, as well. This is the result:

Check out more of Joëlle's art at: or her Tumblr. She also sometimes sells her movie-themed illos on Etsy.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

DESIGN FOR LIVING (Blu-Ray) - #592

The first scene of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 romantic comedy Design for Living is so perfectly composed, it tells you everything you need to know about the film’s trio of main characters and their relationship to one another before any of them even speak. A blonde woman enters a train car to find two men asleep, shoulder to shoulder, heads back, leaning in. She is amused by their pose, and, sitting across from them, she pulls out a sketchpad to draw them. When she is done sketching, she goes to sleep, too. She puts her feet up on the bench between the two men, her decidedly feminine shoes nestled between their masculine frames. One of them drops his hand in his slumber, and it rests on her ankle. The other fellow leans in closer. Here we have a classic love triangle.

The girl is Gilda Farrell, a commercial illustrator played by the delightful Miriam Hopkins (Trouble in Paradise, Virginia City). The men are painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper, Pride of the Yankees [review], High Noon [review]) and playwright Tom Chambers (Fredric March, Nothing Sacred [review], The Best Years of Our Lives), two not entirely successful Americans living in a flop in Paris. Gilda is American, as well, but unlike the boys, has a successful career. Banter comes naturally, as does romance. On two consecutive days, Gilda has a date with each man. As she explains it, George makes her feel all heated from head to toe; Tom’s fires start stoking down at her feet and work their way up to her head. Both men fulfill something different for her (in a sense, one is brawn, the other brains), and so she proposes that she not choose between them, or ask them to sacrifice their friendship. Instead, she will date them both simultaneously.

Design for Living is based on a play by Noël Coward, and adapted for the screen by Ben Hecht (Notorious [review], His Girl Friday). Lubitsch helmed the production before the Hayes Code, and so Design for Living maintains a surprising frankness. Coward created three intelligent characters who choose an unconventional method for cohabitation, and rather than shying away from it or moralizing, he lets the love story play out. The dialogue is witty and biting, establishing believable connections between all three participants. The tone is erudite, the jokes snappy and clever, and the overall philosophy progressive. Gilda is an example of early feminism in cinema: she has her own income, and thus her independence. When she suggests the open relationship, she states quite clearly that if she were a man, she’d be allowed to sample as many partners as she liked without having to settle. Why shouldn’t a lady be afforded the same luxury?

In fact, the pact between the triangle is referred to as a “gentleman’s agreement,” though the terminology will prove troublesome. The three swear off sex. Not even kissing is allowed. Instead, Gilda will put her energy into helping the men’s careers, judging their work with a harsh critical eye until they are good enough to sell. In more conventional terms, a sort of domestic partnership is created, with the three living together, honoring the pact, keeping each other honest. Thomas is the first one to have success, with his play being picked up for a production to London. (In another example of pre-Code frankness, Gilda connects Tom with a gay producer; if his sexuality weren’t evident in his decidedly non-caricatured flamboyance, Gilda’s crack that he’d like the script because it’s “a woman’s play” is an amusing tip-off.) This leaves Gilda and George alone, with no buffer between them. As Gilda says, moments before giving in to her sexual impulse, “It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”

This, of course, brings complications. There is a back and forth of temptation. Gilda really does love both of them, and there is no choosing one or the other for her. Thomas’ return from London, where he finds his old friends living in luxury following George’s blossoming as a painter--in fact, George is out of town--turns into a tough display of feelings and then a randy expression of lust. Thomas’ old typewriter serves as a rather effective visual metaphor for their mutual sex drive: only Gilda can ring his bell.

Miriam Hopkins is wonderful in this scene, as she is in the entire movie. She is confident and charismatic, feisty with a cutting tongue, and also perfectly feminine. She doesn’t sacrifice beauty or glamour for career, and her nurturing of the two manchildren in her care even supports more “traditional” interpretations of male-female relations. The only thing she has to give up is sex, but that’s not to have a life denied women, it’s to have the life they all three pursue in the face of conflicting social mores. Hopkins provides Design for Living’s center, and the others all orbit around her. March and Cooper make an excellent comic team, perfectly cast in their opposing yet complementary roles. March is droll and a little smarmy, while the towering Cooper is clumsy and blunt. Their expertly timed back-and-forth absolutely sells the completeness of their friendship.

A friendship that Gilda ultimately won’t sacrifice. She leaves them rather than destroy their bond, and she ends up marrying her old boss. True domestic bliss is not to be had, however, as sublimating her will to be the dutiful wife is not in Gilda’s nature. It’s rather sly; Design for Living validates and promotes equality amongst the sexes by removing the sex. Which isn’t to say that man and woman can’t have a physical relationship and the woman not be allowed to be herself within it--Gilda could have had that with either of her suitors--because where the characters end up ultimately lends support to monogamy, as well. The three lovers here are pursuing something imperfect, but possibly more pure. A Platonic ideal, perhaps. An artistic existence. Artists tend to live outside of the norm, after all, dedicating themselves to their work in a way that is usually beyond the understanding of their friends and family. It’s that creative exuberance that Gilda is afraid to extinguish, just as much as she is afraid of destroying the men’s friendship. “Stay an artist,” she tells George when she’s leaving him. “That’s important. In fact, the most important thing.”
Gilda can’t be an artist with a man who would be her boss. She can only be who she is with men who see her as a peer.

With as much as can be read into Design for Living, its true achievement is that it’s never didactic. Though I’ve been pulling subtext up by the roots for this essay, Lubitsch is careful to make sure that it always remains exactly what it is: subtext. The up-top is important above all: the relationship and the interaction of the characters. Design for Living is a facile romantic comedy, full of hilarious one-liners and even funnier escalating, conversational jokes. One need never pause from the laughing to think about all that’s going on. The laughter on its own is enough. This, surely, is the quality that Preston Sturges wanted us to remember when he namedropped his fellow director in Sullivan’s Travels [review]. John L. Sullivan wanted to create motion pictures that mattered, and had he known Lubitsch’s work, he’d not have had to travel so far to discover that all you had to do was leave the audience smiling, and that mattered enough.

It’s amazing to think that the first time I saw Design for Living, it was buried on a cut-rate Gary Cooper boxed set, given little fanfare next to some of his historical adventure pictures. Thank goodness Criterion saw fit to rescue it and give the film its own release. The Blu-Ray restoration looks fantastic. While not all lines and scratches could be whisked away, the high-definition resolution is otherwise flawless, light years away from the banged-up, dark transfer on the old disc. If I recall, that one had a soundtrack full of hiss, as well. Criterion’s uncompressed mono has nary a crackle. 

Also of note on this disc is the inclusion of a two-minute sequence Lubitsch contributed to the anthology film If I Had a Million in 1932. “The Clerk” stars Charles Laughton as, well, a clerk who receives a check for a million dollars. While merely just a gag piece, the comedic business here is flawlessly executed, working a slow-build to lull the audience into a comfortable spot before hitting them with a rather simple, silly, and effective punchline. Even at such a short running time, Ernst Lubitsch manages to say it all!

For further reading, please visit Kim Morgan's site and her piece on Design for Living (also included in full in the disc's booklet). It should be noted that I took some of the images here from Sunset Gun.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


This review of Grand Illusion, the first numerical Criterion DVD, was written in conjunction with the new 75th-Anniversary print of the film’s engagement at Portland’s historic Cinema 21 theater, starting this Friday, July 6. I got to attend a press showing and was taken aback by how good the new print, which was struck from an original negative, looks today. It’s as if no time has passed at all. 

The numerical structure of the review is largely to separate certain sections. Namely, part 1 is a version of the short review that ran in the Portland Mercury. It’s available on their site, alongside a sidebar article I wrote about other films that bear the Renoir influence.

(1) Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion is 75 years old. Which is70 more years than it took for them to reboot the Spider-Man films. That’s got to say something for how powerful a drama this war movie really is.

Grand Illusion stars Jean Gabin, the French Humphrey Bogart, as a pilot shot down behind German lines during WWI. He is taken to a prison camp where he immediately joins a group of his countrymen in digging a tunnel to escape. Bad luck ends that particular scheme, but not the dream; when Gabin and his effete captain are moved to another prison, this one run by the pilot that knocked them out of the sky (and played impeccably by Erich von Stroheim), the urge to flee becomes undeniable.

There’s a lot of humor and even some heartbreak to be found in the first 2/3 of Grand Illusion. The real meat of the film is in its final reels, however, when Gabin’s flight from incarceration tests his patience with his fellow fugitive and leads to finding love in the countryside. Renoir’s script is both sprawling and devilishly compact. The freewheeling structure keeps it feeling fresh even today. Comments that “the war to end all wars” will do nothing of the sort now seem eerily prescient, as they must have also in 1937, when Hitler was shoring up power. Yet, it’s not what Grand Illusion says about war that keeps it relevant, it’s what it says about the human spirit and the bonds people form in troubling times. 

(2) It’s actually interesting to consider how far away from the war the events in the movie are. At the start of the picture, Gabin’s Lieutenant Maréchal is given orders to take Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) on a mission into enemy territory. Jump cut to a very similar scene, with von Stroheim’s stately Captain von Rauffenstein returning from a sortie of his own. I am sure the confusion the sudden change causes is intentional. It takes a couple of lines of dialogue to realize these aren’t the same pilots we saw just seconds ago. In fact, von Rauffenstein is returning from shooting Maréchal and de Boeldieu down. The mission is over, it happened offscreen.

A lot of the action does, at least until the men are finally on the run. There’s another escapee who is killed at the first prison camp, but the shots are fired out of sight. Likewise, when Maréchal is thrown in solitary confinement, we see the instigating action that gets him punished, but not the beatdown. There are also tales of other escape attempts that occurred in between that first prison and ending up at von Rauffenstein’s castle. The German’s have commandeered a 12th-century estate to use as their holding pen. von Rauffenstein has experienced his own comedown in the year or so since he first met the French soldiers. A combat accident has left him with burns all over his body, and he looks like a gothic grotesquerie in his plastic truss. His head practically looks disconnected from his body, placed in the cup of the unyielding girdle. These are all important things that occur, but all of them happen away from the camera eye.

von Rauffenstein’s relationship with de Boeldieu is one of the more crucial in the film, and it gets to the heart of what Renoir and co-writer Charles Spaak are saying about the strange bedfellows wars make. There is a pronounced civility between the fighting men when on the ground. Just because their countrymen are duking it out elsewhere doesn’t mean they can’t get along when guns aren’t blazing. The German Captain sees a comrade in the French Captain. In a way, rank equals class. Yet, there is also a marked difference between de Boeldieu’s aristocratic air and the more friendly Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish immigrant whose family amassed a fortune in France. He didn’t need to fight, but his patriotism extends to protecting the country that blessed him with riches. The major split between von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu is caused by the German officer’s anti-Semitism and his dismissal of the working-class Maréchal as something lesser.

The action becomes more immediate, and visible, when Maréchal and Rosenthal finally break out, following a plan created by de Boeldieu as atonement for his privilege. We see the men at work, we see them running and hiding, the peril becomes urgent and real. And yet, here too life has a habit of continuing unabated. Eventually Maréchal and Rosenthal hole up in an out-of-the-way farmhouse where a German widow (Dita Parlo, L’Atalante [review]) lives alone with her daughter, having lost all her male relatives to the conflict. She and Maréchal find some comfort and romance with each other, and the unit operates as a temporary family. The regular needs of regular people don’t stop because bureaucrats far away are squabbling over lines on a map.

(3) Jean Renoir, assistant director Jacques Becker (who later made his own masterful prison-break picture, Le Trou), and director of photography Christian Matras (who also shot Le Plaisir [review], Fanfan la Tulipe [review], and The Milky Way [review], among others) carefully balance the intimate and the massive, turning the two elements on their heads and contrasting the difference between confinement and freedom. There is something more secure about the closed spaces. It’s friendly there. Not just with your fellow prisoners, but no one is shooting at you. You know where you are and the boundaries that accompany it.

On the other hand, when Maréchal and Rosenthal are racing across the snowy countryside, they are subject to the elements, dogged by their jailers, and generally uncertain about their future. It’s the irony of freedom. You can do as you please, but there are unpredictable consequences to your actions. Gabin has a natural confidence on camera, but part of the appeal of Grand Illusion is watching this charismatic actor unravel, seeing him lose his cool, watching him take a chance. The unseen escape attempts are treated like a joke--he disguised himself as a guard in one; in another, he dressed in drag, only to be hit on by a non-commissioned officer--but this last shot at liberty is seriously dangerous.

Funny enough, it had been so long since I had seen Grand Illusion, I remembered the ending going a certain way. I e-mailed a friend and said so, and he asked me if this time it turned out that the pair escaped. This is a big question. Did they or didn’t they? What are we supposed to take away from the final shots: that the grand illusion of the title is our belief that there is any safety or security out there? The men note that even if they get home, their most likely fate will be to be sent to the front yet again. They’ll keep going until they win or don’t come back. Regardless of how you interpret the end, the futility of human endeavor seems obvious. Maréchal and Rosenthal are oblivious to how close they came to meeting their deaths, trudging blindly up a hill to who knows where. The folly of man is that we keep climbing, because to stop seems even more pointless. Or so we kid ourselves, carrying on and on in an endless cycle.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


One was an accomplished film editor looking to move up the cinema ladder, the other a successful playwright ready to embrace motion pictures in full. David Lean, the man who would go on to make Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, two of the biggest big-screen epics of all time, began his career on a relatively moderate scale by comparison, but teaming with a writer as popular as Noël Coward (A Design forLiving) was somewhat epic unto itself. The pair made four films between 1942 and 1945, showing increasing progress across the quartet and culminating in a genuine masterpiece of romantic cinema. Criterion finally collects all of these movies under one banner, David Lean Directs NoëlCoward, boasting new high-definition transfers and a healthy selection of bonus materials.

I reviewed the movies in the set separately for this blog, but you can read them compiled together, along with notes on the technical specs, over at DVD Talk.


My reviews of non-Criterion movies from the last month:


All artwork by Natalie Nourigat. Be sure to read her comic strip reviews of Brave and Prometheus.  

Brave, the latest Pixar hits the bullseye. Their first with a girl hero does not disappoint, even if the 3D does.

Lola Versus herself, as played by Greta Gerwig.

Magic Mike is coming from you. Watch out for his wand! Steven Soderbergh's latest is ridiculous fun.

Moonrise Kingdoma charming rumination on the divide between childhood and growing up from Wes Anderson. Wonderful.

Prometheus: Now if only Ridley Scott could make a prequel to my disappointment.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a surprisingly emotional comedy about the apocalypse. Starring Steve Carrel, Keira Knightley, and a ton of funny cameos.


The Innkeepers, a middling ghost story from Ti West.

King of Devil's Island, a bummer of a drama set in a reform school in early-20th-Century Norway.