Letters to the Editors

Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937)

Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937)

At the risk of seeming like a defensive parent hovering over his firstborn, I would like to take issue with the representation of my book (In Search ofLa Grande Illusion) in Max Nelson’s review (Cineaste, Summer 2014).

I have no problem with his disagreement about my criticism of the “auteurist spirit” and of Jean Renoir’s career (especially his later films). I know my view is a minority one in the film world, and I’m ready for dissenting opinions. Fine. Arguments can be made.

But two things bother me: Mr. Nelson devotes more than half of his review to those pages covering auteurism and that career (42 pages out of a 224-page book)—and barely touches on my book’s first half, which is a detailed analysis, often shot-by-shot, of Renoir’s masterpiece (rare in the literature on the film).

He makes noindication of the unusual approach, or the serious discussion of cinematic technique. Nor much indication of how he feels about this approach, or at least not much beyond noting its obsessive quality, with which I heartily agree. He does disagree with my take on Rauffenstein’s cutting of the geranium; fair enough, we differ. But, in the only other specific reaction to my analysis of shots, Mr. Nelson distorts, beyond recognition, my interpretation of the famous “Marseillaise” shot; he writes that I miss the “harsh comic edge” in calling it “baldly nationalistic.” In fact, I lovingly analyze the shot, including its humor, and note that the nationalism at the end is part of what makes it so great (the disjunction with the rest of the movie, the twists and turns, Renoir’s breadth).

Although I feel my book is balanced and fair, there’s no question that I could be criticized for my close cinematic analysis. I would welcome such a debate. But Mr. Nelson largely ignores this key part of the book.

He is also silent about the riskiest chapter, which introduces some film theory (Chapter 22); it’s not an easy chapter, but I think it raises some interesting, and original, concepts about the nature of film.

One of his rare agreements with me is that shifting the climax to Elsa’s “Christmas morning declaration of love” can be “justified,” but then he doesn’t deal with my treatment of that shot, nor with my argument for the primacy of the farm in general, in the twenty-two-page chapter that is so critical in my analysis. And yet, even here, he misses the point by characterizing Elsa’s words as a “declaration of love.” What she in fact says is: “The coffee is ready.” And I write: “Elsa’s insignificant words imply, rather than announce, their love.” Which is a central tenet of my book—the indirect and elusive quality of Renoir’s approach. More missed opportunities for Mr. Nelson to communicate what I’ve done in my book, or to challenge it. No matter.

But silence is not golden when the shape and intent (and very content) of a book is at stake.

Nick Macdonald
Brooklyn, NY

Max Nelson replies:

I’m grateful to Nick Macdonald for his eloquent, thoughtful letter. It’s a privilege to correspond directly with an author I respect, especially when doing so means trying to show that I attach more value to his work than he himself seems to think. I can’t help but feel, however, that Mr. Macdonald is as silent about certain points in my review as he believes I am about the “shape and intent” of his book.

After all, I do indicate how I feel about his unusually thorough approach to Grand Illusion, and spend some time—the first third of the review—praising him (albeit with some light qualifications) for his “serious discussion of [Renoir’s] cinematic technique”: its meticulousness, its patience, its warm, admiring tone, its refusal to indulge in flights of theoretical fancy, and its attentiveness to what is actually happening onscreen at any given moment in the film.

In giving the time and space I did to Mr. Macdonald’s survey of Renoir’s career, my intention was not simply to take issue with his “minority opinion” on Renoir’s later films. Mr. Macdonald’s critical approach in this section of the book—in sharp contrast to his approach towards Grand Illusion—strikes me as hasty, full of thinly argued hit-and-run judgments, and I did, I admit, feel the urge to single out a couple films for protection. (When it comes to The River and Elena and Her Men, I am the one playing the part of the defensive parent.)

But by dwelling on this stretch of the book, I also hoped, as I suggested, “to clarify the limits of [Mr. Macdonald’s] reading of Grand Illusion” itself. This is not a complaint against Mr. Macdonald’s choice to linger so carefully on the movie’s technique; I have nothing but admiration for his comprehensiveness, and for his sensitivity to “the indirect and elusive quality of Renoir’s approach.” (Although I maintain that Elsa’s Christmas morning greeting is a declaration of love, however unspoken or indirect.) What I mean is that his analysis is conducted with a certain image of Renoir in mind that, while certainly accurate, strikes me as frustratingly incomplete.

To take a contentious example: After analyzing the shot with customary precision, Mr. Macdonald characterizes the singing of the Marseillaise as “a low point thematically in La Grande Illusion” that “runs counter to Renoir’s apparent sympathies.” His point is that “this intricate and sensuous shot,” full “of humor and contradictions,” shows that, for Renoir, the road that leads to “the triumph of brotherhood over nationalism” is “never straight.” But the most striking feature of the scene seems to me to be the way the singing of the anthem works as a direct extension of the burlesque show that preceded it, so that the troops’ expression of patriotic feeling becomes its own kind of self-conscious performance—as, ultimately, does Renoir’s display of skeptical, conflicted sympathy for the singers. It’s this tendency on Renoir’s part to expose the theatrical machinery behind his characters’ displays of warm-blooded humanism—and, more importantly, his own—that I feel Mr. Macdonald fails to take into full account. He gives us Renoir’s breadth, his humor, his empathy, his subtlety, his purity, and his economy, but what he plays down, at least at certain critical moments, is his ironic self-awareness.