It seemed that Lionsgate had forgotten about their North American arm of the StudioCanal Collection since they released the first wave of Region A StudioCanal Blu-rays in 2010 with such classic titles as The Third Man (1949) and Ran (1985). After nearly two years, Lionsgate returns to the StudioCanal Collection in full force with the release of one of the greatest films in cinematic history for the first time on Blu-ray in North America: La Grande Illusion. This classic feature from French master Jean Renoir has awed and inspired generations of viewers since its release in 1937, and a Blu-ray release from Lionsgate means that fans can view the film as if for the first time again in a stunning HD transfer of the film’s original negative. What’s more, Lionsgate supplements the already spectacular experience of Grande Illusion in HD with a wealth of insights on the film from cinema experts, historians, and archivists in the numerous special features included herein.
For those unfamiliar with the film, Grande Illusion follows two French officers, played by Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay, taken as prisoners of war after their plane is shot down over Germany during World War I, and their attempts to escape from German custody. Erich von Stroheim plays the iconic, and somewhat cartoonish, German officer, Captain von Rauffenstein, the film’s chief antagonist who laments at length the failing of the bourgeoisie’s hold over European society. Through the conversations between von Rauffenstein and Fresnay’s Captain de Boeldieu throughout, what begins as an essentially straightforward anti-war piece quickly matures into a poignant exploration of the rigid class structures that arbitrarily valued noblemen over commoners and the gentile over Jews, even among ranked officers. As a result, the film’s thematic focus becomes nobility in every sense of the word, criticizing European society for valuing noble blood over noble deeds.
To put the influentiality of La Grande Illusion in perspective from a purely home video standpoint, the sheer importance of the film led to it becoming the premiere title in the much-lauded Criterion DVD Collection. Indeed, their well-respected line of releases now numbering in the 600s began with Grande Illusion as spine number one. Unfortunately for Criterion, however, they eventually lost the rights to the film’s distribution, and said rights went to Lionsgate, where the film has seemingly languished until now. Fortunately for cinephiles, Lionsgate has produced here a Blu-ray with a comparable transfer to those of Criterion. And let’s be honest, the highest praise I could offer a non-Criterion BD release is that it’s everything I would have expected had the release been produced by Criterion. The HD transfer here, sourced from the original negative currently in the possession of the Toulouse Cinémathèque, is simply breath-taking. Crisp, clear, and beautifully capturing the original film stock’s grain structure, Lionsgate offers audiences the chance to view La Grande Illusion presented with one of the single most flawless visual transfers I’ve ever encountered in a Blu-ray of a classic film.
Special features on this disc include a 12-minute introduction to the film by professor and film critic, GInette Vincendeau; interviews with Renoir expert Olivier Curchod and screenwriter John Truby; a discussion of the La Grande Illusion‘s original negative by Toulouse Cinémathèque representative Natacha Laurent; a restoration demonstration; and the film’s trailers from both its 1937 and 1958 releases.