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Still a fine film, but age has withered it - and the Blu-ray subtitles are tiny,
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This review is from: La Grande Illusion [DVD] (DVD)NB: As is their wont, Amazon have unhelpfully lumped together the reviews of various editions and formats of this title. This review refers to StudioCanal's DVD and Blu-ray releases, which conain different extras.
La Grande Illusion is one of those films whose reputation as one of the pinnacles of cinematic achievement has always seemed unfathomable to me. If anything, its reputation does the film a great disservice. It IS a good film - a very good film, in fact - but it's not the great one it may have seemed before so many P.O.W. films burrowed through similar ground after the war, and it seems to have less to say with each passing year, gradually turning into yet another prisoner of war movie moving from boarding school hijinks to slightly superficial comments on the class system. There are a few excellent scenes in the last third, not least once Von Stroheim re-enters the film, but it feels at times as if there's more French studio system craft than substance. Certainly as an anti-war film it's surprisingly ineffective compared to Pabst or Milestone's earlier efforts.
Studio Canal's 75th Anniversary edition DVD is an improvement over the previous Warners/Canal + release, this has a restored sequence missing from the earlier release and an introduction by film historian Ginette Vincendreau. Also included are two of Renoir's silent short films:
Made with film stock left over from the production of Nana, 1927's Sur un Air de Charleston is described as a holiday film for all concerned, and that's the best way to view it. Jean Renoir seems never to have thought enough of it to even edit the footage together. The plot is a simple reversion of racial stereotypes - in 2028 a black explorer travels to a post-holocaust Paris where a white native girl teaches him the Charleston (naturally he assumes she's a savage whose dancing is a prelude to her eating him before giving in to the seductive beat of `White Aborigine' music). There are plenty of surreal touches, be it the pet gorilla eating the flowers in Catherine Hessling's hair, the angels the girl telephones (Renoir and producer Pierre Braunberger among them) or the fact that black performer Johnny Huggins plays his part in minstrel blackface while Hessling's dancing ability is almost completely nonexistent, and there are some interesting occasional experiments with slow motion, but there's not really enough to sustain it for its modest two reels.
1928 short La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes aka The Little Match Girl also suffers from an unconvincing and badly cast lead performance from Mrs Renoir, Catherine Hessling, who looks anything but little and more than capable of looking after herself, which certainly takes the edge off Hans Christian Andersen's tale. Indeed, the film makes a couple of attempts to write itself out of the problem by portraying her as more than usually stupid, but they feel more like in-jokes than anything else. It's a shame, because the film itself is an impressively staged fantasy with great special effects and some interesting visual experimentation with camera speed and focus amid the unashamedly romantic treatment of the fantasy scenes, especially the sequence where the girl and her toy soldier are chased through the clouds by Death in the form of a relentless Hussar. If only you could care about the character...
After a few disappointments like their truly dismal Blu-ray transfer of Ran [Blu-ray], Studio Canal's Blu-ray comes with a very impressive new transfer that's slightly let down by ridiculously tiny subtitles that will be troublesome for some watching on anything less than a 40inch set - why is it that so many Blu-ray producers seem to assume everybody will be watching on a 60inch screen? On the plus side there's a plethora of featurettes, including the reminiscences of script girl Francois Giroud in an extract from a 1986 French TV programme that saw her revisiting the castle location for the film, a couple of restoration pieces, critical appraisals by Olivier Curchod, John Truby and Ginette Vincendeau and both the original and 1958 reissue trailers. The latter is particularly interesting, with Renoir 'doing a Hitchcock' and simply addressing the camera for six minutes with his own reminiscences about the film. Unlike their earlier DVD special edition, it's missing one of the Renoir silent short films, the surreal Sur un Air de Charleston, instead offering only 1928's La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes aka The Little Match Girl.
The same Blu-ray edition that StudioCanal have released in France and Germany with the same language and subtitle options, initial copies of the UK Blu-ray come in digibook packaging with an English-language booklet about the film - though be warned, it's a bit difficult getting the disc back into the packaging.