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3D, doctor

The Elusive Corporal (1962) and La Marseillaise (1938)

LACMA is having a five week Jean Renoir film series where they're showing nearly all of his films.  I went twice this weekend, first to see the double bill of Grand Illusion and The Elusive Corporal and then to see La Marseillaise last night.

Of course, Grand Illusion is a wonderful film and there's not much I'm able to say about it.  This was my third time seeing it and there's so much character detail that I always get something new out of it (also, I always seem to forget most of the first half of the movie - so watching the first part is almost like a nice surprise!).

The Elusive Corporal I'd never seen before.  It's a lot like Grand Illusion - it's also set mostly in POW camps except it takes place during WWII and things are grimmer.  The plot centers around the Corporal (a really sweet Jean-Pierre Cassel) a loyal member of the French army who refuses, like many of his compatriots, to take it easy in the POW camps, befriend the Germans, and ride the war out.  He wants to escape back to France and he tries to escape over and over and over again.  Grand illusion may have more going as it tackles all of society and almost all of humanity - but the The Elusive Corporal's strength is its narrow focus on just two things  - imprisonment and freedom.

The movie alternates between awful newsreel shots of bombs and explosions, depressing scenes of prison camp life, and, the Corporal's improbable and  hilarious escape attempts.  Even as the Corporal's punishments for escaping become worse and worse, the attempted escapes become funnier and funnier.  By the midway point I wanted him to escape so badly, yet I still laughed whenever it went horribly wrong.  In LACMA's program for the film they had a quote from Renoir, "The Elusive Corporal...is a picture of the solidarity that binds men flung into the melting pot of despair, facing a situation together."  The movie's humorous escape attempts feel like how the Corporal would later tell the story of his latest foiled try to his fellow prisoners - with lots of humor added to make the story seem funny rather than disheartening. 

La Marseillaise was disappointing.  I had wanted to see it ever since I saw a clip of it in Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid but it didn't live up to my expectations.  The film is about the French Revolution and centers largely around a group of middle-class friends from Marseilles who go to Paris to help their countrymen with the Revolution.  None of the revolutionaries' scenes worked - the acting was rather bad and their dialog was embarrassingly earnest.   Unfortunately, for a film celebrating the Revolution, the only selling points were the scenes with Louis XVI and his Court.  Jean Renoir's brother, Pierre, played Louis XVI, and he makes the king into a hard eating, oblivious, and yet very sympathetic man.  The best scenes come at the end of the film when the King walks among his soldiers to inspire them but they insult him to his face.  He realizes in that instant that it's all over.  Pierre Renoir plays the beaten man so perfectly, your heart goes out to him (even though he's to blame).  Apart from a few great moments, though, the movie is stilted and not really worth sitting through.