La Grande Illusion

La Grande Illusion

Format: Cinema

Dates: 6 April 2012

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Dates: 23 April 2012

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Jean Renoir

Writers: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir

Cast: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim

France 1937

114 mins

To mark the 75th anniversary of La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir’s most successful film, Studiocanal and the Cinémathèque de Toulouse are releasing a new, digitally restored version. It is very moving to see a classic film so skilfully restored, the image as clear and blemish-free as if it were made yesterday, the soundtrack without the hint of a crackle. Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim are resurrected and, without any technical interference, the audience of 2012 is transported to World War I. They sense, with a shiver, the film’s original significance on the eve of a second world war. As Europe confronts financial crisis today, La Grande Illusion retains its power as an example of European camaraderie and co-operation.

Set in Germany, the film follows a group of French prisoners of war. The central characters span the social spectrum: Lieutenant Maréchal (Gabin), a good-humoured, big-hearted man of modest means; Lieutenant Rosenthal, a rich Jewish banker who generously shares his care packages from Paris; and their captain, de Boeldieu, whose upper-class manners and habits keep his men at a distance, even though he considers them his equals. De Boeldieu feels more at home with a German of similar rank and background: Captain von Rauffenstein (von Stroheim), a captor who acts as a gracious host. All of the men regularly comment on the differences that separate them, but they equally demonstrate how friendship can overcome barriers of class, religion and nationality. Class is the greatest separating factor, specifically the divide between an increasingly outdated aristocracy and the plebs who are about to take over power in a fast-changing Europe. While Rosenthal’s wealth doesn’t prevent him and Maréchal from becoming firm friends, the stiff behaviour of de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein isolates them. Yet these two repressed characters are at the centre of one of the film’s most moving scenes: the powerful emotions that de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein must feel are made more poignant for being so carefully controlled and subtly expressed. All human relationships are precious here, as it is uncertain whether any of the men will make it to the end of the war.

There was uncertainty in the very existence of La Grande Illusion. An anti-war film made just two years before World War II, it was banned in Germany, Italy and France, before the Nazis confiscated the negative. Luckily, the Reichfilmarchiv was located in a part of Berlin that later fell to the Red Army. La Grande Illusion was taken to Moscow, where it formed part of the founding collection of Gosfilmfond, Russia’s National Film Archives. It was 20 years before the film was finally returned to France. The film’s first restoration in the 1990s reinstated previously censored scenes featuring sympathetic Germans or references to venereal disease. The new print will be released in UK cinemas on April 6, and from April 23, La Grande Illusion will be available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Alison Frank

Watch the trailer:

Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld

Lady Snowblood

Format: DVD

Release date: 2 Feb 2003

Distributor: Warrior

Director: Toshiya Fujita

Writers: Kazuo Kamimura, Norio Osada

Based on the manga by: Kazuo Koike

Original title: Shurayukihime

Cast: Meiko Kaji, Toshio Kurosawa, Masaaki Daimon

Japan 1973

97 mins

Lady Snowblood started her life as the heroine of a manga written by Kazuo Koike in the early 70s, before being incarnated by the actress Meiko Kaji in two film adaptations of the story, Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld (1973) and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), both directed by Toshiya Fujita. Strong from her turns as the leader of a delinquent girl gang in the Stray Cat Rock series (1970-71), and as a cold-blooded avenger in the Female Convict Scorpion films (1972-73), the enigmatic, steely-eyed Kaji was the perfect choice to play a 19th-century assassin out to avenge the rape of her mother and the murder of her family.

Blizzard from the Netherworld opens in Tokyo Prison in Meiji 7 (1874). A woman gives birth as snow falls outside, announcing to her newborn daughter, barely out of the womb: ‘Yuki, you were born for vengeance, a child of the netherworld.’ The film cuts to the now adult Yuki dispatching a local criminal in an eerily quiet, snowy street. As she squares up to the gangster’s henchmen, snow falls from a nearby roof, landing inches from their feet, an act of aggression that suggests that Yuki is almost supernaturally in control. As we are repeatedly told throughout the film, Yuki is not quite human; her name means ‘snow’ in Japanese, and she is an elemental force, unstoppable and indestructible. Conjured up from hell to carry out her mother’s revenge, she is the embodiment of an idée fixe.

Her full name, ‘Shurayuki-hime’, is a pun on the Japanese for Snow White, ‘Shirayuki-hime’. The Kanji character ‘Shura’ means ‘the netherworld’, a place of carnage, and ‘hime’ is ‘princess’. In the Grimm fairy tale, Snow White is also conjured up by her mother out of blood and snow: the queen, having pricked her finger and seen the drop of blood on the snow, wishes for a daughter that would have ‘skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony’. Just like Lady Snowblood, Snow White is plucked from her mother’s fancy, and fashioned out of the elements that the queen can see around her. This quasi-magical birth conveys all the mystery of procreation, and the combination of blood and snow clearly has sexual undertones, with the hot red flow fertilising white water; a mixing of fluids, but also of states, liquid and solid, life and death, to create a new being. No wonder that the combination of blood and snow, so over-used, still remains powerful: it is the image of primordial creation.

Or destruction, in the case of Yuki. As she walks away from the first scene of carnage, the narrator explains: ‘People say that what cleanses this world of decay is not pure white snow but snow that is stained fiery red: the snow of the netherworld.’ It is a striking inversion of the symbolism of snow, and the image is brilliantly paradoxical. True to her name, Yuki is a contradictory being: a demonic creature hell-bent on destruction, but pure in her single-minded purpose of revenge.

Visually, the film makes much of the white/red contrast, starting with the female convicts in their red prison uniforms surrounding the newborn Yuki, wrapped in a white cloth. Yuki wears a white kimono for most of the film, the perfect backdrop for the Grand Guignol sprays of blood that regularly gush out of her victims. White clothes are in fact the starting point of the whole story: the husband of Yuki’s mother was killed because he was wearing white, and for that reason was mistakenly taken for a hated government official.

Naturally, the film ends with more blood and snow. Having accomplished the final act of her revenge, Yuki staggers out in the snow, wounded, her white kimono stained with blood. Clearly the welding of these elements - snow, blood, women and revenge - exerts a strange attraction, with that final scene in particular sowing seeds in the imagination of other filmmakers. Norifumi Suzuki’s Sex and Fury, released in 1973, was seemingly influenced by Blizzard from the Netherworld, although it upped the quotient of nudity, violence and sheer lunacy. Suzuki’s film similarly ends with the heroine stumbling out in the snow, her bare tattooed chest covered in blood, which she cleans with a handful of snow before walking away in the darkness as the snowflakes turn into hanafuda gambling cards. No such inventive re-interpretation in Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1 (2003), which simply regurgitated its cinematic precedents like a lesson well learnt. Park Chan-wook, on the other hand, ended his Lady Vengeance (2005) with the heroine being given tofu by her daughter; as they embrace in the snow, the white substances inside and around her offer the promise of cleansing and renewal. The snow holds no such promise at the end of Blizzard from the Netherworld, unique in its complex reading of snow; herself the purifier, Yuki is beyond cleansing and can only carry on down her path of revenge, even as all her enemies lie dead.

This article was first published in the Winter 08 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine, which focused on snow in film.

Virginie Sélavy