Powerful Illusion

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For many years, my Christmas video watching included the 1937 French World War I drama Grand Illusion, which was directed by Jean Renoir. Towards its end, there is a poignant Christmas Eve scene that, for me, always added another dimension to the peaceful message and communal feeling of the season.

These viewings, which started in the late 1980s, made use of a VHS video that I picked up at a store like Blockbuster or Suncoast Video. That version became my standard way of viewing Grand Illusion, just like it was for many other people who had seen the film.

That helped prepare me for one of my most enjoyable experiences at the Detroit Film Theatre. In November 1999, the DFT screened a version of Grand Illusion that included scenes cut from my video version, as well as a much better print quality.

“Following delicate international negotiations, a full restoration was completed this year, resulting in the most stunning Grand Illusion ever seen on American screens,” read the DFT schedule notes for Grand Illusion when it was shown at the DFT on November 5, 6, and 7, 1999.

That screening of Grand Illusion became one of my most anticipated DFT events. And when I saw the movie, it became one of my most satisfying DFT experiences.

There was a moment of transcendence that I still clearly remember, 13 years later. It was just after the Christmas scene, during a series of sad farewells. The powerful black and white images of that scene seemed to hover over the transfixed audience, melding all of the elements of the event (film, theater, audience) into a memorable moment.

Restored Illusion

Now, in September 2012, Grand Illusion has returned to the DFT, after further restoration work. That’s particularly appropriate, because it opens a new DFT season after a summer of restoration work to the Detroit Institute of Arts auditorium that hosts the DFT. Exterior work will continue for a few more weeks, but the auditorium is open for business, following a summer DFT season in the Lecture Hall of the DIA.

This time around, the schedule notes read, “A definitive restoration was undertaken in 2011, when new 35mm prints were created from the nitrate camera negative.”

The home video era, with its seemingly endless series of “final” versions for some films, has helped make film restoration efforts seem as permanent as farewell tours by musical performers. Is this really it, or is there more to come?

But your enjoyment of the event helps you get past any marketing manipulation that might be going on. And I’ll accept any reason to see a classic like Grand Illusion on the big screen again. More detail is given about the restoration effort at the web site for the Film Forum in New York City, where Grand Illusion was shown a few days before it came to Detroit.

Detroit audiences first enjoyed Grand Illusion on January 3, 1939, at the Cinema Theatre (58 E. Columbia at Woodward), according to the book Detroit’s Downtown Movie Palaces, by Michael Hauser and Marianne Weldon.

The Cinema Theatre is one of the unsung heroes of Detroit movie theater history, with its longtime support of foreign and independent films, years before the DFT opened. It later became the Gem Theatre, and the building was moved to 333 Madison Avenue.

For me, Grand Illusion is one of the great films, both for its artistry and its message. Renoir had a talent for creating very natural interactions among the different characters, giving us multiple perspectives of each person.

For example, there was Marcel Dalio, whom I recently saw on the big screen in Casablanca (Redford Theatre, Michigan Theater) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Michigan Theater).

In Grand Illusion, Dalio was part of a pivotal scene in a farmhouse with Jean Gabin and Dita Parlo, who had a very different role earlier this year at the DFT in L’Atalante (1934). Dalio was a mediating presence, giving more dimension to the growing love affair between Gabin and Parlo.

It was a pleasure to reacquaint myself with Grand Illusion, thanks to the DFT, the film restoration team (Studiocanal and La Cinémathèque de Toulouse), and Rialto Pictures.

The careful positioning and movements of the camera that revealed so much about the characters and their environment. The mournful soundtrack music that underscored the heartbreak and fatalism of the script.

The documentary feeling of many of the prison camp scenes, especially when the camera panned across the faces of different soldiers. The witty, ironic script whose humor was brought to life by the group laughter of the DFT audience.

And of course, the message about the tragedy of war. Grand Illusion didn’t prevent World War II from breaking out a few years later, and this past week it didn’t stop the attacks on United States embassies and consulates around the world.

But we just have to keep trying to make the latest war the last war, as one of the characters in Grand Illusion expressed. And the power of enduring films like Grand Illusion reminds us of our common interests that help keep us human.

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Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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