Grand Illusion ★★★

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 7: French Poetic Realism

The Film School Dropout challenge is not just about finally seeing a bunch of great, classic movies for the first time, but is equally about learning which so-called "classics" over the years have been overhyped and in actuality aren't that great; and to that small list so far this year you can now add Jean Renoir's 1937 Grand Illusion, a film that's not exactly bad but that certainly didn't hold up in my eyes to its "top ten in all of history" designation that so many people place it. Directed by the son of Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, the movie's title comes from an economic theory that was popular in the years before World War One, one which claimed that the nations of Europe would never go to war with each other because their national economies were so complexly entwined with each other's, it would ruin all the countries in question no matter who emerged as the winner. (Of course, this theory didn't take into account all the independently wealthy members of these nations' aristocracies who had nothing to lose by a global war, and hence started World War One mostly out of personal pride and in the name of honoring a series of byzantine treaties they had signed with all their second cousins across Europe; and as we all know, the economies of all the European nations really did bottom out in the years after the war, essentially turning a place like Germany into an apocalyptic nightmare which is what led to the rise of fascism and the subsequent World War Two, a catastrophe that took Europe an entire half a century to eventually recover from.)

That essentially seems to be Renoir's point here as well, that the "combatants" of World War One tended to not really line up in the simplistic nationalistic way their governments ordered them to when the war first started, but rather bonded and made enemies through such old-fashioned criteria such as who was rich and who was poor, no matter what nation that person actually fought for (and of course with everyone hating the Jewish guy, because this is the 1910s after all). Most film critics in the years since have claimed that Renoir shows an empathetic look at universal humanism in a movie like this, the main reason it's so celebrated; but I don't know, maybe it's because I happened to watch this in the Trumpian Age in which we live, but I found it hard to see this movie's main message as anything other than, "Rich white men will always gang up with other rich white men for the purpose of oppressing the poor, even if the sad little civil servants of their respective governments tell them that they're supposed to be enemies." And in fact, with this attitude in mind, it's fairly easy to look at the two leaders of the opposing armies here (Erich von Stroheim as the head of a German prisoner-of-war camp, and Pierre Fresnay as the highest ranking French officer currently in captivity) and see them as Trump and Putin themselves, wistfully sipping their cognacs and lamenting over when the war might finally be over, so they can stop being forced to mingle with the riff-raff and get back to the business of running the planet for themselves. And finally, let's add the problem that this French Poetic Realism movie is neither "poetic" nor "realistic;" it is in fact shot like a very typical Hollywood studio film from those years as well, with fake-looking sets that have been overlit to the point of absurdity, and pedestrian cinematography that wastes the small amount of location shooting within sweeping Alpine vistas that Renoir and co. actually did.

So all in all, a pretty disappointing watch, especially for a movie that Orson Welles once called one of two films he would take to a desert island with him; although it's worth noting that, after widely being considered destroyed during the war, the original negatives of Grand Illusion were found in 1956, and the movie cleaned up and re-released in the early '60s, just in time for the intellectuals of the French New Wave to re-discover it and declare it a masterpiece. In fact, the more I learn about this period in history, the more I realize that most of the pre-war films we now call "classics" were singlehandedly given that designation by the academic eggheads of the French New Wave movement, and that we owe it to ourselves to take those kinds of designations with a grain of salt now, here half a century after their height. The French New Wavers were often calling movies "classics" back then simply in an attempt to show the general population that the medium of popular movies even deserved to have that kind of upper layer in the first place; but as I've been learning this year, not all the movies the French New Wavers gushed about back then deserve to be gushed about anymore, with this overly talky, flatly filmed, bizarrely one-percenter message movie being one of them. Here's hoping things get better with the next movie slated to be watched this week, 1938's Port of Shadows, one of the first-ever movies to convince French critics to invent the term "film noir" as a way of describing it.

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