For the time being Le grand jeu will have to serve as my sole introduction to the work of Jacques Feyder. He seems rather underrepresented in home viewing formats but perhaps time will serve to change that. Certainly, if this film is anything to go by, there is a wealth of interesting elements to be found within his career which spans all the way back to 1912 and bridges various critical points in the history of the artform. By the time he made Le grand jeu, his first French sound film, he already had a number of highly regarded silent features under his belt as well as a successful stint at Hollywood (including working with Garbo on The Kiss). With Le grande jeu we have a film that serves as a precursor to the French Poetic Realist movement while also serving up a scenario suggestive of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
The story concerns Pierre Martel (Pierre Richard-Willm), a reckless playboy type who, after some particularly poor mismanagement of company funds (or perhaps even embezzlement), is forced to leave the country to preserve his family’s honour. His lover Florence (Marie Bell) is used to the finer things in life and refuses to leave immediately with Pierre, saying instead that she’ll join him once he has things sorted in another country. Knowing that this is a lie Pierre leaves the country on his own and, with nowhere else to go, heads to North Africa and a position in the French Foreign Legion. Changing his name to Pierre Muller he waits out his days on duty under the Moroccan sun, spending his free time at a local hotel run by a husband and wife couple, Blanche (played by Feyder’s wife, Françoise Rosay) and Clément (the highly prolific Charles Vanel).
While on leave and attending one of the local bars Pierre meets another woman, Irma (also played by Marie Bell) and it is here that things take a decidedly more unhealthy twist. Though her hair is darker, her voice deeper (Bell was dubbed by another actress for this second role) and she claims no recollection of her past, Pierre wonders if Irma might indeed be Florence. She sports a wound on her temple that looks like it may have been inflicted by a bullet. Regardless of what the truth may be Pierre can’t help but tie his old affection for Florence to Irma and subsequently the two engage in an affair during which he promises her escape from her life as a showgirl and prostitute. All the while, foretold in Blanche’s reading of cards, we know that things will not end well.
It’s impossible to divorce this film from the Poetic Realist movement that followed it. With Marcel Carné credited as an assistant and a co-writing credit for Charles Spaak the pedigree is obviously there. What is surprising then is the distinct lack of shadow and other more atmospheric harbingers of doom. The film instead manages a more narratively attuned building of dread and inevitable demise. Like Murnau, it would seem that Feyder believed in the power of the image and lamented the early advent of sound cinema as it effectively broke conventions just as they were reaching their optimal power.
Feyder’s camera impresses and even amazes as it glides past, pans across or even forces through the film’s various sets; sets often pared down to almost theatrically abstract qualities: a divider here, the beginnings of a staircase there. Particularly in the early sections of the film the camera takes on a much more active role than could be considered the norm for this epoch of cinema and again reminds one more of the ‘unchained camera’ Murnau realised. One particularly impressive sequence sees the Legionnaires arrive on leave and, taking on a first person perspective, the camera pushes through the crowd taking in all the chaos unfolding around it.
The narrative takes its time building up to the finale and, with Blanche’s ability to read cards, we know the basics of many of the twists before they unfold. Nonetheless it is this very inevitability which the film centres on (as would the Poetic Realism movement as a whole). Although boasting a few exterior shots the film is almost entirely studio bound. That sort of outdoor experimentation is better found in Renoir’s Toni which was made the very same year. The story rests entirely on the characters and the implications of their actions with the purity of the images lending immediate weight, rather than atmospheric colouring, to the unfolding nightmare. Unusually—though primarily concerned with the French Foreign Legion and with France’s colonial actions in North Africa—the film does not directly depict any sort of military conflict. In an unusual ellipse the death of one character leads directly into the mourning of another whose life is lost off-screen.
Feyder’s construction is immaculate, paring down and unifying different sources of tension to create this closed and often bruising world of largely self-inflicted hurt. Indeed, as Ginette Vincendeau notes in her accompanying essay, the film lacks the romanticism that later male leads like Gabin would command to colour their often maniacal, misogynistic or self destructive tendencies. Martel/Muller’s treatment of Irma, his use and abuse of her, is shown quite mercilessly and plays a part in establishing the film’s often startling frankness regarding sexuality. That is to say, this film certainly could not have found release under Hollywood’s Hays Code1.
In relation to the disc this film comes courtesy of Eureka’s “Masters of Cinema” label in the UK. The image quality is strong if perhaps not exemplary and, although lacking any supplements on the disc itself, we get a typically well laid out booklet with a specially commissioned essay by Ginette Vincendeau (probably well known to many fans of great French cinema on DVD at this stage) that covers many interesting points regarding the themes, feminist leanings and influence the film holds and also a few (admittedly) brief notes from Feyder and some of his co-workers outlining the director’s cinematic theory and his fond relationship with the likes of Carné and Spaak.
More than anything else this film leaves me keen to delve deeper into the works of Feyder. Though overshadowed by many who entered the field after him (e.g. Carné, Renoir and Duvivier) his contribution here is undeniably fully formed and vital. Its influence spreads further than his national cinema with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Feyder’s film may lack the almost overwhelming lushness of Hitchcock’s tale but it provides an interesting, if not identical, take on similar ideas. There’s no doubt that having another Feyder film available for English speaking audiences can only be lauded.
1 The Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry censorship guidelines which governed the production of the vast majority of United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It was originally popularly known as the Hays Code, after its creator, Will H. Hays. The Production Code spelled out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States. — Wikipedia (Motion Picture Production Code)