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A Man's World 

Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train and the restored Grand Illusion

Wednesday, Aug 25 1999
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Rialto Pictures/Janus FilmsPATRICE CHéREAU'S THOSE WHO LOVE ME CAN TAKE the Train opens with an image of repose, but there's barely a frame in this flamboyant, pumped-up film that doesn't seem to tear by -- half the main characters are shooting smack, but the movie itself feels like it's hopped up on speed. At first it's unclear what the hurry is, given that the story is essentially an extended postmortem. A renowned painter named Jean-Baptiste, seen in intermittent, teasing flashback in the person of veteran actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, has died and is to be buried in his hometown of Limoges, a middle-class city in central France that he'd gladly left for Paris years before. The film's eccentric title is taken from the painter's last, belligerent testament: To an interviewer, he has declared that those who love him -- blood and spiritual relations alike -- can travel enormous lengths to his funeral, no matter how inconvenient. And shortly thereafter, they do -- friends, lovers and toadies jostling for space aboard the train as they'd once jostled for the great man's affection.

Released in France last year, the film is the seventh feature directed by Chéreau, who has also directed theater and opera, and who occasionally acts on stage and on screen (he appeared in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans). Chéreau's last film was Queen Margot, a pleasurably vulgar epic about the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, designed as a showcase for star Isabelle Adjani but memorable only for the director's eye for spectacle and the phalanx of beautiful male actors camping about in 16th-century drag. Although the unbearable Adjani is, gratefully, nowhere to be seen in Those Who Love Me, several of the other principals have returned, most importantly Pascal Greggory, who prowled Queen Margot in a de Medici fright wig and had previously enriched several Eric Rohmer movies. Here, Greggory plays cool to the rest of the cast's overheated mass. As François, he's come to mourn Jean-Baptiste, for whom he sustains a longing that rebounds brutally against his own lover, Louis (Bruno Todeschini). This pair, plus Bruno, a seductive bit of rough trade played by Sylvain Jacques, form a tortured ménage à trois that, along with the violently estranged Jean-Marie (Charles Berling) and Claire (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), furnish a perverse running commentary on the destruction wrought by Jean-Baptiste, in death as in life.

François and Bruno, Jean-Marie and Claire make it to Limoges for the funeral, and afterward the four, amid a retinue of squalling mourners, travel to the estate of Jean-Baptiste's twin, Lucien, also played by Trintignant. There, the ties bound by Jean-Baptiste are tightened yet further, like a noose, and French heartthrob Vincent Perez shows up as a pre-op transsexual. Not all of it makes sense, at least consistently, but neither is it meant to, since the story is about life as it's lived, not rehearsed. Eventually, the storm does quiet, at which point Chéreau fires up Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony as accompaniment to a magnificent visual coup de grâce -- a soaring tour above Limoges that's close to divine. Most of Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train isn't nearly as thrilling, but the film is persuasively performed and rapturously cinematic; director of photography Eric Gautier moves the CinemaScope camera so lightly it's as if he were balancing feathers, not a hunk of machinery. If this were an American movie, the distributor would no doubt be pitching it as a gay film, a categorization that isn't necessarily wrong, only unnecessarily limiting. In this emotionally chaotic story, men love one another without inhibition, sometimes with kindness. Much like the film itself, there's passion in these human relationships, even if there's not always clarity or reason.

RELEASED IN 1937, JEAN RENOIR'S GRAND ILLUSION was a favorite of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and loathed by Joseph Goebbels, which is about as fine a pair of recommendations as it's possible to imagine. Goebbels, not only a mass murderer but also an adroit blurb whore, declared the movie "Cinematographic Enemy No. 1." Hermann Goering, however, liked the film (it was shown in Germany without some scenes featuring its leading Jewish character), as did the Nazi officer who saved from destruction the negative from which this newly restored version was struck. The film was written by Renoir and Charles Spaak, and is based on the life adventures recounted to the legendary director by one of his former World War I compatriots, a man who'd repeatedly escaped his German captors. There are four main characters: Maréchal (Jean Gabin), de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), all officers and each a prisoner of a kind. The story begins shortly after French Lieutenant Maréchal and Captain de Boeldieu have been shot out of the air by Captain von Rauffenstein, a cultured German officer who thinks nothing of inviting his prisoners to a formal dinner. The rest of it plays out in two separate prisons, as well as a German farmhouse where two of the Frenchmen manage to take refuge.

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Like the greatest literature, Grand Illusion is a complex story about things that actually mean something -- life, death, class, race, war, friendship -- but since it's a film, it is deeply moving in ways that only seem possible in this medium. Some of this is because of the way the movie looks -- even if you've never spent a single second in a prisoner-of-war camp, it's easy to believe that these cramped rooms, lined with pictures of women and reeking of a pathetic nostalgia that seems almost material, are wretchedly authentic. The film has a distinct texture that's at once coarse, delicate and deeply human, and is revealed in the justly celebrated performances as well as in the cinematography. In one of his last interviews, Renoir, talking about the development of his camera style, explained, "The reason for my camera work was not to cut in the middle of the acting of the actor, but to have the camera hanging on the actor, following the actor; the camera being just a recording instrument, and not a God." It's easy to understand why the French critic André Bazin once wrote of this modest man, "Renoir is a moralist."

To that end, while the characters occasionally border on the grotesque, they are never less than pitifully, frailly human, none more so than Hollywood outcast von Stroheim, whose subtly modulated performance is a masterpiece of pride and pathos. The German captain's stiff, lurching physicality (the actor came up with his own costume, including the bizarre neck brace) makes a startling contrast to the tenderness of his sentiments, especially toward de Boeldieu. Critics have often focused on the philosophical and political content of the pair's curious relationship, but the image of the two men talking easily together on a banquette, matching wits and good manners, reveals that this is as much a love story as it is a film about war. Which is precisely what makes the film so moving and, at least in ghastly hindsight, something different from what it was upon its release: a hopeful, lyric epilogue made in the wake of what was, at that time, the most devastating war in the modern world, a film about essential human goodness.

An exchange at the end between Maréchal and Rosenthal on the illusion of national borders helps explain the film's title, though only in part. In his unfinished book on the director, written in the late '50s, Bazin argued that Grand Illusion exposes the falseness of those illusions that divide human beings -- race, class, nationality -- even as it acknowledges that such illusions can also be beautiful, and life-affirming, as with one prisoner's consuming need to translate the Greek poet Pindar. "The grand illusions are the illusion of hatred, which arbitrarily divides men who in reality are not separated by anything," Bazin wrote, while acknowledging that these illusions, these boundaries, nonetheless exist. What he left unsaid, of course, is that these very illusions would lead straight to Auschwitz. A moralist and a humanist both, Renoir had no way of knowing that the humanity he had such faith in would turn out to be less truthful than his remarkable art.

GRAND ILLUSION | Directed by JEAN RENOIR | Written by RENOIR and CHARLES SPAAK | Produced by ALBERT PINKOVITCH and FRANK ROLLMER | Re-released by Rialto Pictures | At Laemmle's Royal

THOSE WHO LOVE ME CAN TAKE THE TRAIN | Directed by PATRICE CHéREAU | Written by DANI...LE THOMPSON, CHéREAU and PIERRE TRIVIDIC Produced by CHARLES GASSOT | Released by Kino International | At the Nuart

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