Jean Gabin

The Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)

I can’t figure out who Renoir had in mind when he made Grand Illusion. It goes without saying he placed incredible trust in his audience, but his expectations are somewhat beyond anything else I’ve seen. Grand Illusion is a film with events–momentous, important events–but they pass without comment, without any recognition or identification. The events tend to be big enough the viewer can recognize them, but Renoir’s characters either process them offscreen or silently.

There are some obvious examples, like the one officer sacrificing himself so others can escape and it never once being acknowledged. When he comes up again, the escapees immediately stop talking about him (in fear of it being a downer of a conversation). Renoir fills the film with moments of unstated significance, but he takes it to a technical, storytelling level too. In one scene, characters get on a train, there’s a long montage of shots presumably from the train windows, followed by a new place with the characters arriving. Except over a year has passed and the characters have been in multiple other prison camps in the missing months and the viewer doesn’t even find out about it for five minutes into this new section. It manages to be confusing without disorienting–I’ve seen the film twice before and it still threw me for a little loop.

Since Grand Illusion, many war films have used a fractured narrative with style-heavy tactics to comment on war’s disorder. But these films tend to do it visually. I’m not aware of any other war film with Grand Illusion‘s approach–Renoir doesn’t say anything to the viewer, doesn’t request any participation from the viewer, doesn’t encourage him or her to engage with the material. Instead, Renoir tells the story in a way indifferent to the audience. All fiction exists in some state without reader interaction, but Grand Illusion is one of the few completely disinterested in what that interaction might generate. It’s kind of crazy, I suppose, but it works and Renoir knows it does.

The cast–Jean Gabin, Julien Carette, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim–is perfect. In the first part of the film, Renoir relies a great deal on Carette for humor, while weighing Gabin done (Gabin can, of course, handle it). The second part relies greatly on the relationships between Fresnay and von Stroheim and Fresnay and Gabin. Fresnay and von Stroheim are two aristocratic officers, leftovers from the previous century, whose kinship is the only one Renoir points out. Gabin and Fresnay, who’ve been together the entire film, don’t have that connection. Their scenes in this stage, where they process the significance of class in modern warfare, are somewhat tragic and glorious.

The last part of the film, with German widow Dita Parlo taking in Gabin and company, is probably Grand Illusion at it’s most traditional. It shouldn’t feel like an organic progression, but does. Renoir doesn’t exactly talk about the things he hasn’t been able to mention in the other sections; he shows them instead. For the first time in the film since the first scene, Gabin plays the leading man. First-billed, he’s rarely the most important person in the film. His scenes with Parlo, which–again–should be Grand Illusion at its most awkward or weakest, are wonderful. Renoir handles them gently, tragically hopeful. Along with the film’s final scene, they make Grand Illusion nearly optimistic.

Orson Welles called this film the one he’d save. It makes sense.



Directed by Jean Renoir; written by Charles Spaak and Renoir; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; music by Joseph Kosma; produced by Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer; released by Réalisation d’art cinématographique.

Starring Jean Gabin (Lt. Maréchal), Dita Parlo (Elsa), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. de Boeldieu), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Julien Carette (Cartier), Georges Péclet (le serrurier), Werner Florian (Sgt. Arthur), Jean Dasté (the teacher), Sylvain Itkine (Lt. Demolder), Gaston Modot (the engineer) and Marcel Dalio (Lt. Rosenthal).

French Cancan (1955, Jean Renoir)

As French Cancan started… wait, no. Before I even started French Cancan (I avoided watching it yesterday in fact), I was dreading an experience similar to The Golden Coach. I don’t think my soul could handle two terrible Renoirs in one month. However, once it started, I was immediately reassured to some degree–Jean Gabin is the lead and the film is in French.

The first act of Cancan is good, not spectacular, but good. Renoir does not direct well in color. His composition is lazy and–the film is about the creation of the Moulin Rouge (I have no idea of its historical accuracy)–it’s distractingly noisy. Of course, it’s probably noisy to hide the lack of any content. The film runs 103 minutes and I probably took three and a half hours to watch it. Folding laundry is more interesting. With a single exception, the film’s well-acted, but it’s not enough. There’s nothing going on in French Cancan. It’s not about Gabin’s theater promoter, it’s not about his aging star, it’s not about the young girl who’s replacing that star. It’s about noise.

In the last twenty minutes, after the film’s gone through a number of five minute conflicts and resolutions, the Moulin Rouge finally opens. This sequence is mind-numbingly boring. With my attention free to wander, I tried to think of a funny opening line to this post, something about the themes and motifs of Jean Renoir’s earlier films in relation to French Cancan. Then I realized… French Cancan has no themes or motifs. It’s a bunch of boring fluff. Still, it’s not as infuriating as The Golden Coach, but it certainly testifies that late Renoir is nothing like early Renoir.



Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Renoir, based on an idea by André-Paul Antoine; director of photography, Michel Kelber; edited by Borys Lewin; music by Georges Van Parys; produced by Louis Wipf; released by Gaumont.

Starring Jean Gabin (Danglard), Françoise Arnoul (Nini), María Félix (La Belle Abbesse), Jean-Roger Caussimon (Baron Walter), Franco Pastorino (Paulo), Giani Esposito (The Prince), Philippe Clay (Casimir), Valentine Tessier (Mme. Olympe), Lydia Johnson (Mme. Guibole), Jean Parédès (Coudrier) and Albert Remy (Barjelin).

The Lower Depths (1936, Jean Renoir)

So it was a play….

I know Renoir for Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game and I’m aware he had a Hollywood period, then went back to France. The Lower Depths is earlier.

Jean Gabin is fantastic, so is Louis Jouvet. Renoir juxtaposes royalty on its way down and a thief on his way out. The relationship between the two men is fantastic and when the film veers from it–into the long scenes with the flophouse’s other residents, I started checking the clock. Adapting a play well takes more work than just adapting a novel–a play has so much that isn’t going to work on screen.

Not changing the setting from Russia to France works against the film too… though maybe not. I suppose there are plenty of American films of the period set in other languages told in English. However, I always think of Russia as having a distinctiveness that The Lower Depths does not (I’m mostly thinking Ballad of a Soldier). The Lower Depths isn’t rich with the atmosphere, in fact it seems kind of anorexic with it. The film never succeeds in making the audience believe there are more than the people we see throughout–when there’s a huge crowd at one point, it’s totally out of place.

Still, it’s an interesting “in-progress” work from Renoir. From the first shot, you can see he’s doing something special.



Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Yevgeni Zamyatin, Jacques Companéez, Renoir and Charles Spaak, based on a play by Maxim Gorky; director of photography, Fédote Bourgasoff and Jean Bachelet; edited by Marguerite Renoir; music by Jean Wiener; produced by Alexandre Kamenka; produced by Films Albatros.

Starring Jean Gabin (Wasska Pepel), Junie Astor (Natacha), Suzy Prim (Vassilissa Kostyleva), Louis Jouvet (The Baron), Vladimir Sokoloff (Kostylev), Jany Holt (Nastia), Robert Le Vigan (The Alcoholic Actor), René Génin (Louka), Paul Temps (Satine), Robert Ozanne (Jabot) and Henri Saint-Isle (Kletsch).

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