Le Grand jeu Review
Pace is the trick. In Jacques Feyder's Le Grand jeu, first-time viewers going into the film largely blind to plot points might watch half or more of the picture without realizing exactly what's going on. That's a thrill if you're in the right hands. Great pacing is a matter of patience born from the sort of storytelling where hinting at what will happen next becomes secondary to selectively tipping your hand. Feyder introduces us to the characters of Pierre (Pierre Richard-Willm) and Florence (Marie Bell). The protagonist is in deep financial trouble after something that resembles embezzlement, seemingly done to please her luxurious whims. Other members of his wealthy family come in to set things straight to avoid embarrassment but only with the condition that Pierre leave the country. No money equals no Florence. The next thing we see is Pierre suddenly in North Africa having joined up with the Legionnaires. Further relaying of the synopsis spoils a bit of the fun of the picture, though even the official write-up used for this release alludes to what is a fascinating development. Stop reading if you prefer to enter with otherwise fresh eyes.
Cards play a significant role in Le Grand jeu, its title even coming from Pierre's insistence to the character Blanche (Françoise Rosay) to give him a full tarot reading. In much the same way that a hand is dealt little by little, Feyder dispenses his intentions with considered carefulness. After Pierre becomes an unlikely battle hero, he and friend Nicolas hang their hats at a seedy little hotel in Morocco run by Blanche and her husband Clément (Charles Vanel). Rooms unoccupied by tenants can serve as brief respites for prostitutes and their clients. In one scene, even Pierre's room gets evacuated to make space for a quick round of paid sex. The frankness found here is at times surprising when compared against the more conservative fare being produced at the Hollywood studios. One hotel employee even gets so fed up with being forced into daily sessions with Clément that she quits the gig, declaring that a little every now and then is pretty much expected but everyday is just too much. Did I mention that Clément is played by Charles Vanel?
During this time in Morocco, Pierre is seen still pining for Florence. His obsession need not translate or even be understandable. The mere fact that he can't kick this woman is the point. It's this aspect that draws Le Grand jeu into being an early example of (or precursor to, depending on your perspective) poetic realism. Feyder doesn't really imbue his film otherwise with many of the elements of poetic realism and the photography hardly resembles the later examples of that movement. The malaise that transitioned over to Hollywood and inspired film noir is present. It carries with it a deep sense of fatalism, of unmistakable helplessness to alter our outcome. That's here too, especially in the deceptively obvious foreshadowing taken away from Blanche's readings. What she predicts happens but not always how the viewer figured it might. The character of Irma (played by Marie Bell though not voiced by her) becomes the missing link. When she finally appears, about halfway through the film, it's a lit match to our preconceptions. Oh, so this is where we're going, you might guess.
Any well-versed viewer is going to immediately think of Vertigo here. It's inevitable and basically unavoidable. Maybe those with particularly enhanced palates can disregard the Hitchcock film but most of our minds will go there right away upon seeing Bell, now a brunette, play another version of the objection of Pierre's obsession. Irma materializes to Pierre without Florence's blonde hair. He's in disbelief but comes around after finding the scar on her head. He theorizes that it's from a self-inflicted bullet, that his former Florence was so distraught and in disarray when he left that she resorted to attempted suicide. She must have lost her memory as a result and somehow ended up in a Moroccan cabaret. Blanche's prediction that Pierre will again see Florence supports this theory.
What's tough to crack, in a very French and very removed from film noir way, is Pierre's reaction to now (perhaps) having this woman he's spent years thinking about and wanting so desperately as to never be able to forget or move past her. Pierre is unimpressed. Does this say something about him and his false love for Florence or does it instead imply that Irma could never be Florence? My reading might not necessarily match yours but, most importantly, Feyder generously allows for several interpretations. The director's display of so many of the same themes Hitchcock turned to in Vertigo is actually quite sophisticated. He uses Irma as a means to deepen Pierre's lack of reason. I found this to be far and away the most affecting aspect of the film. It's a fascinating attempt to plunder the depths of a rejected man's soul. That's the noir angle, and also the poetic realism one. Further to that is the role of Blanche's readings and how an already written fate must determine such an outcome.
Inventive and odd camera movements highlight the technical considerations of Le Grand jeu. We see beautifully fluid attempts to position the action. Though Blanche's cards are a minor visualization of what turns out to be a major idea, they're sometimes seen from above as a means of injecting drama into a film otherwise content to move along unassumingly. The shots distinguish themselves as black and white representations of a foreboding future. Feyder relies on these expectations in the narrative, even to the point where the final result is assumed taken for granted rather than shown. The sense of fatalism occupies a determined place within the film, as a means to avoid pure realism in favor of a cinematic alternative. What results is quite often brilliant and always captivating.
In truth, I don't know what other English language label would have gambled on a somewhat unheralded (largely due to a lack of availability, I'm sure) French film from 1934 for release aside from Eureka's Masters of Cinema series. Sure we're the ones to plunk down the cash or credit-fueled computer transactions but it still feels like a debt will forever be owed to the good folks capable of bringing such works to the home viewer. This R0 PAL edition is entrusted to a dual-layered disc in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
It's another in a long line of superbly rendered transfers. There's a tiny amount of damage, noticeable at one point in the form of a vertical tramline scratch, but grain is at a pleasing level. Forgive me, but you'd be an idiot to complain. Contrast looks as good as one could hope for and the levels of detail are entirely within the expected parameters for a film of this vintage. Of course, age of a film isn't the relevant factor so much as the condition of the materials but they do often go together. In this instance, Le Grand jeu looks like something from 1934 but still on the positive side of such an indicator. In short, the progressive transfer is far more of a selling point than a reason for concern.
Audio, too, is hardly an issue. The French mono track is clean. I detected nothing in the way of a hiss or distracting pops. There are obvious limitations but it's reproduced with extreme care. The English subtitles are optional and white in color
Though the disc itself is absent any bonus material, we do get a booklet running 28 pages. It includes an insightful essay by Ginette Vincendeau that sets up the female-oriented aspect of the film and also reminds us of the unhealthy side of male fatalism. As always, I'll take such an appraisal over a commentary or even a video essay most any time. We're also treated to a Feyder Dossier that includes the director's thoughts from 1926 on image and scenario in general and a brief paragraph on the film at hand. Both Charles Spaak and Charles Vanel also share some quick thoughts on Feyder. Stills and credits help to pad out the rest. No complaints here.