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Glimpses #11: Jean Renoir

I have too many things to do; in New York—my home town, thank the fates—the situation is self-perpetuating if, as so often occurs, your interest lies in the arts.  Yesterday I allowed myself to fit in—in broad daylight!—not just one but two movies, being shown back to back in our town’s inexhaustible revival house Film Forum.  Both were created by Jean Renoir (my second favorite, after Ozu), the guy who doesn’t kid himself about human nature yet is one of the most humane movie makers who ever lived.  First up was La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), the poignant absurdity of its characters’ behavior summed up in the line “The trouble is that everyone has his reasons.”  Then Grand Illusion, a piercingly ironic film about war (laced with rather more sentiment than we tolerate today).  It has the grace to stand ineluctably for freedom and the wisdom to leave the outcome ambiguous.

© 2012 Tobi Tobias


  1. Martha Ullman West says

    Going to the movies in broad daylight always feels like playing hooky to me, a quite delicious feeling. “Grand Illusion” I have seen, in the dark, and in the daylight–many, many times. My historian husband used it as historical documentation in his course on World War I, as well as “Paths of Glory”; my father took me to see it the first time at the Eighth Street Playhouse which is no longer there I believe, when I was about twelve. Sentimental or not, the very thought of the scene where the prisoners sing La Marseillaise, is likely to make me weep. Nevertheless, TT’s summation is absolutely to the point; La Regle du jeu aussi.

  2. Julia Prospero says

    Tobi, two great films from one awesome film maker. Both
    bear repeated viewing. I’ve always loved Renoir’s work.

  3. A weekday is my favorite time to go to a movie. Sometimes it’s like a private screening. “The Rules of the Game” is on my Top Ten. I also want to put in a word for Renoir’s “The River,” surely one of the most beautiful color films ever made.

  4. Tom Phillips says

    I’ve seen “Grand Illusion” half a dozen times and it stands alone at the top in my film pantheon. My advice to young people: if you want to understand the 20th century, start with two movies — “Grand Illusion” and “The Battle of Algiers.” “Grand Illusion” encompasses the first half of the century — it’s a WW1 flick, but with WW2 looming inevitably at its ending. “Battle of Algiers” lays the groundwork for the age of liberation movements, and terrorism — in this film, one and the same.

  5. Ann Ilan Alter says

    Yes to all of the above. I love the movies in the afternoon, when there are few people and you feel you have the whole theater (almost) to yourself. In New York that is truer, but in Paris, many people go to the movies in the afternoon, and when I was doing research at the Bibliotheque Nationale, there were many dreary days when several of us would opt for the movies instead of our work.

    Tobi, as usual a lovely and thoughtful comment. And yes Renoir is also at the top of my list. I love showing it in my history classes, especially because “Grand Illusion” functions on two levels: it is a story of World War I but it is made during the era of the Popular Front and certainly the characters reflect looming Nazism and the anti-Semitic and racist reactionary right of the 1930’s.

    I also had another reaction this time: I saw it just after Hollande (the French Socialist presidential candidate) won the election in France, and I gather that the crowds at the celebrations were remarkable because there was such a variety of races cheering the Socialist victory. “Grand Illusion” really brought that home. How relevant the film is today, not just as history!

    While I love “Rules of the Game,” my other favorite Renoir is “La Marseillaise,” a movie he made just after “Grand Illusion,” which portrays the French Revolution in its more radical phase, culminating in the Republican triumph at Valmy in 1792. Once again, it is a history lesson through the lens of the Popular Front, and totally exhilarating.

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