Who doesn’t love Jean Gabin?  I suppose if you’re going to start a new project, it might as well have some form of Jean Gabin in it.  He exudes an effortless cool, and his fleshy face invites (or at least suggests) pinching.  And, as the world-weary French officer Maréchal in Grand Illusion, he lends an earthy charm to a film that examines class, warfare, and class warfare.

Matthew and I watched the film in the evening, even though we were slightly tired from a day of teaching.  For me, first days (despite this being the second week of classes), are always accompanied by inescapable feelings of awkwardness — meeting a room full of new faces that look up to you to either teach them or to entertain them for an hour and fifteen minutes.  On top of that, I haven’t taught an undergraduate creative writing class for about five years, so I felt I was explaining too much and not enough simultaneously.  The day I can’t think of something interesting to say about Junot Diaz’s “Ysrael”…  My fiction writing students skewed heavily towards those who seemed mostly interested in fantasy and/or vampire novels.  Which in itself isn’t a problem, as I was once a total sci-fi/fantasy/horror literature nerd.  But I don’t remember what knocked me out of my lavender-colored gossamer space suit, but it sure as hell wasn’t Ann Beattie’s “Janus.”  (Come to think of it, it might have been Nabakov’s “Signs and Symbols,” but I slogged through the Norton Anthology so long ago that it no longer matters.)

The less said about composition classes, the better.

Instead, I’ll mention my two favorite scenes in Grand Illusion.  One is the obvious one:  the discussion of fading aristocracy between the French POW Cpt. Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and his warden, Cpt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim).  Their conversation about — and understanding of — their diminishing place in the world holds such poignancy.  Their stiff manners and noblesse oblige might be the products of a ridiculously privileged life, but it’s what they have, and damn it, they’re going to keep at it until the end.  They’re like two dinosaurs circling each other, knowing that they’re already fossils.

The other scene takes place earlier, in what I’ll call the POW camp of love.  For a film that only has two actual females towards its end (a ministering nun and a widowed German hausfrau), the first half of the film has females:  1) mentioned in passing as playthings at the French mess hall; 2) pinned against the wall at the German mess hall; 3) or dismissed as Jody-fucking harlots at the first POW camp.  In such a male-occupied space, females only exist as fantasies, projections.  So when a baby-faced POW Maisonneuve puts on a dress in preparation for a all-prisoner!, all-singing! cabaret show, the other prisoners pause and stare as he wanders through the hall, asking, “Don’t I look funny?”  It’s a moment of disbelief and misplaced lust that would almost make me fear for poor Maisonneuve, if it weren’t clear that the scene were being played for humor.