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La Grande Illusion Renoir Analysis Essay

Cross-dressing in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and Europe’s Wartime Masculinity

Thomas Laverriere

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The military is associated with a masculine ideal, so much so that enlisting may be the ultimate demonstration by a young man of his masculinity. Such was the case in Europe at the outbreak of World War I. In 1914, the conflict was anticipated to be short and sweet, more of an adventure than the total war that ensued. Men volunteered because they feared they might otherwise be missing the opportunity of a lifetime. In the excitement of war fervor, however, and even long after the dust of the Great War has settled, few stop to think about what kind of masculinity the military promoted during this time. The military may be viewed as a standard of masculinity even today, but there are pieces of the military culture of World War I that may not fit with contemporary thought about masculinity in the period. Jean Renoir’s 1937 film La Grande Illusion offers a more complete picture of this masculinity. This includes a depiction of cross-dressing, a facet of masculinity seldom explored by historians. But where does this fit into the picture of wartime masculinity, and what did it do for men? Using theories presented by Nicholas Edsall and Alon Rachamimov, Renoir’s representation of cross-dressing in a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp may be analyzed and explained in terms of masculine expression and used to comment on Europe’s changing definition of masculinity during wartime.

Setting the Scene

Renoir shows cross-dressing as a commonplace behavior for men at war, which already challenges common perceptions of masculinity. In the film’s first act, Renoir presents two of the film’s leads, Rosenthal and Maréchal, along with Maisonneuve, an actor, a teacher, and an engineer, all Allied officers preparing to stage a theatrical production to entertain their fellow prisoners of war at a German camp. The scene opens with the six men looking through crates of supplies for the show. They are all excited to find “real dresses,” and begin talking about women back home––how they’ve started wearing their dresses and hair short––before Maréchal suggests that the actor try on one of the dresses so they can see how it looks. At this point, Rosenthal intervenes; he insists that the cross-dressing be done in the best way possible (that is, only a man who has “shaved properly” may dress up) (Renoir 38). That man is Maisonneuve. Maisonneuve agrees, saying, “If you think that’s funny,” and disappears to make his transformation (Renoir 38).

Maisonneuve returns fully dressed as a woman, wig and all, and is met with silence from his comrades. Renoir describes the scene in the screenplay: “All the men turn to look at him and fall silent, curiously disturbed. How many memories and hopes are there. . . . Maisonneuve feels uneasy to see their intense looks on him” (Renoir 39). The scene continues,

MARÉCHAL, with forced laughter: Don’t you think it’s funny?


ROSENTHAL: Yes, it’s funny . . .

MARÉCHAL, very sane and a little sad: It’s really funny . . . you look like a real girl.

They fall into a heavy silence again. . . . They cannot find anything to say as they look at this soldier in a woman’s dress. Very slow pan across the soldiers’ faces staring at MAISONNEUVE in absolute silence . . .

VOICES off: Yes . . . it’s funny! (Renoir 39)

Renoir writes tension into the screenplay, and this translates on screen. This tension is ambiguous, however; it’s clear from the soldiers’ dialogue before Maisonneuve appears dressed as a woman that they are becoming frustrated with being isolated from “real” women. The soldiers appear awestruck because Maisonneuve looks so convincing, but they are all fully cognizant that he is still a man. Yet they allow themselves to be taken aback and admire him. Given the film’s theme of male camaraderie, too, this scene may be read in a homoerotic light. This opens the question of whether Renoir presents cross-dressing as a normative behavior for the soldiers, something to help them reaffirm their own masculinities by enjoying the company of a “woman,” or a disruptive behavior that allowed queer expression.

Contextualizing Cross-dressing in Modern European History

Before we can make sense of what standard of masculinity Renoir applies to cross-dressing, we need to first understand the role of cross-dressing in European culture in the early twentieth century and its place in shaping concepts of masculinity. In his book Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World, historian Nicholas C. Edsall introduces a cultural struggle in Europe between classical (Greek and Roman) and Western (Christian) theories of masculinity (189). Westernization and the spread of Christianity brought with them a new vision of masculinity that forbade anything bordering on homoerotic; this was a part of the ascetic ideal that Friedrich Nietzsche condemned. Strong male friendships became dangerous to one’s reputation. The outbreak of World War I, though, produced extremely strong male bonds that often included homoerotic undertones and sometimes resulted in homosexual encounters. These bonds between men were accepted and encouraged according to the classical model of masculinity. Though homosexual love wasn’t necessarily socially acceptable, strong friendships between powerful men were supported under classical ideology because people believed these relationships helped improve society.

In order to answer the question of where Renoir’s portrayal of cross-dressing fits into this dichotomy of masculinities, it is important to note the history of the practice of cross-dressing and how that may have fit (or not) into men’s identities during this period. Cross-dressing had been a part of a growing queer subculture in Europe for years prior to the outbreak of the War (Edsall 147). An example of cross-dressing and suspicions of homosexuality entering a public forum that illustrates the complexity the issue of masculinity involves would be Kaiser Wilhelm II and his friend Phillip, Fürst zu Eulenburg. The two were part of the same social circle, comprised of many men who were suspected to be homosexual, and sometimes their meetings would include cross-dressing as a social activity (Edsall 147). Later, after both had achieved political power, Phillip was accused of having passed secret information on to the French after the French penetration of Morocco. His suspected homosexuality was used against him in trial (Edsall 148–49).

So, like the military of the early twentieth century, German culture during that time encouraged the strong male bonds between Wilhelm and his friends (classical ideology) until behaviors that suggested homosexuality became public––at which point they were condemned (Christian ideology). This example from pre-War Germany highlights the conflicting ideas facing men of the period that only became more defined as the War set men up to face the issue head-on within the institution of the military, which has always been held up as an inherently masculine system.

This would have to be done privately, however; as Sarah Cole puts it in her book Modernism, Male Intimacy, and the Great War, the common intense male friendships, sometimes bordering on the homoerotic, were a “crushing problem” because of the soldiers’ inability to speak of them. Soldiers couldn’t talk about their relationships due to both (Christian/Western) cultural pressures and a lack of the right words; this restrictive feeling for men necessitated the creation of a “hidden language” with which to talk about them (Cole 470, 473). To do this, soldiers turned to classical Greek texts or the Bible for help in creating their own vocabulary. Despite how common these relationships were during World War I, the new space the military provided for these men “could not ultimately resolve the contradictions inherent in the different visions of male unity that the war generated” (470).

Though Cole further illuminates the contradictory nature of soldiers’ freedom and restriction of expression during World War I, we’re still faced with a conflicted view of masculinity. How might we understand cross-dressing in this murky context? As a behavior endorsed by the military, one could consider cross-dressing a manifestation of a “hidden language” for homoerotic expression within the military’s restrictive framework. “This was the golden age of the female impersonator,” said POW memoirist Hermann Pörzgen, “when unfulfilled eroticism . . . reoriented the fantasies of the mass [of soldiers] toward a new object and channeled love, sorrow, adulation, and critique” (Rachamimov 363). Officers of POW camps fully supported and encouraged performances by men in drag, even encouraged some men to keep up their female personas when they weren’t performing (Rachamimov 377). Such men would receive love letters from other soldiers; sometimes soldiers would do their laundry for them and pamper them as they would a female lover––whether they were romantically or sexually involved or not.

The military officials’ reasoning appeared to be that if the prisoners got their fix of femininity, they would be less likely to have sexual encounters with the other men. They used cross-dressing, which had roots in queer expression, as a normalizing behavior to promote a more Christian masculinity. They may not have realized that by accepting cross-dressing, they accepted the primarily queer history that came with it. Though the prisoners wanted to see the most feminine-looking performers possible––more evidence in favor of cross-dressing as a normative behavior—they still, like the soldiers in La Grande Illusion, became transfixed. These men knew they were watching and interacting with other men. The maintenance of female personas offstage by some men, though, blurred the line between the sexes and even called pronouns into question. What the military believed to be a way of upholding Westernized notions of masculinity may have had the inverse effect on some of the men by giving them an outlet for homoerotic desires and a place to explore them in a classical style.

Analysis of La Grande Illusion

What, then, does this mean for La Grande Illusion? Some scholars who have written on this scene have analyzed it as evidence of Renoir’s fascination with the theatre arts; additionally, scenes depicting plays weren’t uncommon in 1930s cinema. Keith Reader provides a more insightful reading of the film in his article “If I Were a Girl—And I Am Not” that ranks questions surrounding cross-dressing in league with nationalism and social class, hugely important themes in the film. Reader makes this comparison by noting another instance of cross-dressing as a strategy Maréchal uses in one of his escape plans (56). He tries to escape three times: once as a chimney sweep, once as a German soldier, and once as a woman. Relatedly, Reader cites Celia Britton who says, “The drag show is the most obvious visual correlate to the theme of illusion” (56). Thus, despite its short screen time, cross-dressing may be an integral part of Renoir’s vision. Reader’s interpretation assesses the “illusion” of cross-dressing as neither a reaffirmation of heterosexual norms nor an outright refutation of them, but rather a form in which both may coexist.

Edsall’s notion of competing masculine ideologies (the classical and the Christian) and Rachamimov’s exploration of cross-dressing as a normative or disruptive behavior may shed more light on Reader’s interpretation and better explain Renoir’s portrayal of cross-dressing in the film in context. Since the film shows the theatrical performance that included cross-dressing as endorsed by the camp, it seems to promote cross-dressing as a normative behavior, yet the tension between the soldiers when Maisonneuve emerges as a woman suggests that dressing up could have been an expression of a more disruptive classical masculinity. To be sure, Renoir’s vision of cross-dressing isn’t necessarily normative and Christian or disruptive and classical, but the notion that the military could use drag as a normative behavior (for Christian values) that results in the expression of classical masculinity seems paradoxical. Can one really classify the military’s endorsement of cross-dressing as normative if its support creates a space for socially disruptive homoerotic expression?

Instead, one may say that Renoir captures the subjectivity of the experience of cross-dressing. It was normative/Christian for the military officials that endorsed it in the POW camps and on the front lines, but disruptive/classical for many of the soldiers that participated. Looking more critically at the reactions of the soldiers to Maisonneuve, one can see the disruptive nature of his cross-dressing. The soldiers insist that it’s funny, but the silence before the laughter shows the soldiers’ uncertainty of their feelings and how to express them. They have to insist that it’s just for fun to either confirm their longing for a biological woman or repress their longing for a man. What Renoir doesn’t show us is that some of the characters at this performance would have likely had some sort of homosexual encounter(s) at the camp or on the fronts, and cross-dressing may confuse soldiers’ feelings, romantic or sexual or not. Viewing the film through a homoerotic lens is validated by the relationship of Maréchal and Rosenthal; at the end of the film Maréchal chooses to continue traveling with Rosenthal instead of settling down with his female love interest. This friendship between the men is never sexual, but it illustrates the kinds of bonds men formed with homoerotic undertones. The representation of cross-dressing is highly ambiguous, but so were the soldiers’ feelings about themselves and each other––and this is the point.

Given the strong male relationships showcased throughout the film and that events are portrayed almost exclusively from the prisoners’ perspective, one may be inclined to accept their perception of cross-dressing: a disruptive behavior that embraces classical masculinity. The homoerotic tension in the film aligns with classical masculinity, but whether Renoir presents cross-dressing as normative or disruptive is less clear. Since the military culture is such a large part of the film, it makes sense to say that its depiction of cross-dressing is normative even though the soldiers use the behavior to adhere more closely to classical masculinity. The ambiguity, however, shows that Renoir didn’t ignore the homoerotic and homosexual implications of cross-dressing, and as such, its disruptive potential. We see cross-dressing through the soldiers’ eyes, but in the context of the military. Therefore, Renoir shows his audience more of the normative than the disruptive side of cross-dressing.

The secondary, disruptive potential of cross-dressing, however, could be yet another of Renoir’s illusions. Setting the film in its historical context with a focus on the various and changing functions of cross-dressing, largely from the homosexual community, opens doors to new interpretations of Renoir’s depiction of cross-dressing in La Grande Illusion that at the very least establish the scene’s authenticity as a part of the larger experience of war. It wasn’t simply a throwaway scene showing Renoir’s personal interest in theater, but another moment of character study and world building. Perhaps the film itself acted as part of a “hidden language” like the one Cole describes to explore homoeroticism in a non-explicit way. There is something to be said of the film’s ambiguity, but its portrayal of a classical ideal of masculinity is clear. If cross-dressing fit into the final cut of Renoir’s film and has (albeit slowly) begun attracting the attention of historians and gender scholars, how this behavior fits into a picture of masculinity is a conversation worth having. When the illusions are stripped away, the findings may be surprising.

Works Cited

Boxwell, David A. “The Follies of War: Cross-Dressing and Popular Theatre on the British Front Lines, 1914–18.” Modernism/Modernity 9.1 (2002): 1–20. Project Muse. Web.

Cole, Sarah. “Modernism, Male Intimacy, and the Great War.” ELH 76.1 (2001): 469–500. JSTOR. Web.

Edsall, Nicholas C. Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003. Print.

Rachamimov, Alon. “The Disruptive Comforts of Drag: (Trans)Gender Performances Among Prisoners of War in Russia, 1914–1920.” The American Historical Review 111.2 (2006): 362–382. JSTOR. Web.

Reader, Keith. “’If I Were a Girl––And I Am Not’: Cross-dressing in Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie en Rose and Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion.” L’Esprit Créateur 42.3 (2002): 50–59. Project Muse. Web.

Renoir, Jean. Grand Illusion: A Film by Jean Renoir. Trans. Marianne Alexandre and Andrew Sinclair. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968. Print.

At the end of La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937), two prisoners of war, working class engineer Marechal (Jean Gabin) and wealthy Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) attempt an escape from a German patrol across a snowy mountainside. There are shots, then an order that guns be put down: “They are over the border.” The men are no longer in Germany but in neutral Switzerland. The camera pans to show two small, dark figures, black shapes against the white, white snow on which no dividing line can be seen. “Are you sure that’s Switzerland?”, Marechal asks moments before. “It’s all so alike.” Rosenthal, the man with the map (who has possibly the least illusions of anyone in this film) comments, “Of course. You can’t see frontiers. They were invented by men. Nature doesn’t care.”

Renoir believed in“ the division of the world by horizontal frontiers, and not into compartments enclosed in vertical frontiers”, class rather than nationality. Associated with the Popular Front, class is central to Renoir’s work. And yet nothing in this film is easy to categorise. Even horizontal frontiers are invented by men, and men are still a part of nature, who doesn’t care for such divisions. If the class system is a machine, then human connections, human idiosyncrasy, human nature, are the spanner in the works.

Marechal has been shot down and taken prisoner with the aristocratic de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). They stay together throughout various incarcerations and escape attempts. They support each other against criticisms but are in many ways the two people between whom the most stringent border is maintained. It is maintained by de Boeldieu and continually assaulted by Marechal. In a final attempt, before his escape, Marechal makes his most focused attack on de Boeldieu’s reserve: “We’ve been together eighteen months and still you call me ‘vous’.” “I say ‘vous’ to my mother and ‘vous’ to my wife,” De Boeldieu replies. It’s a chilling moment. De Boeldieu’s separation from fellow prisoners is easily explained by class differences. Such a separation from those most intimate to him is different.

Von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim), head of Winterborn camp, recognises de Boeldieu at once as a fellow aristocrat. They understand each other. Unlike other characters, they slip easily from language to language, share memories, acquaintances, values. Von Rauffenstein seems almost infatuated by de Boeldieu, yet de Boeldieu retains with von Rauffenstein the same cool distance he has with Marechal. Linked by class, they are not truly united.

The First World War marked radical changes in society. While dying de Boeldieu tell von Rauffenstein that for people like them, death at war is a “good solution”, an exit from a life that even von Rauffenstein admits is “useless”. De Boeldieu understands what is changing and his own inability (or his lack of desire) to change with it. von Rauffenstein has refused, till now, to recognise this. He tries to force his life into the pattern he desires. No wonder he must be held together by a corset of leather and metal.

And yet de Boeldieu is not simply an aristocrat who would rather die than change. Unlike von Rauffenstein, he does not despise Marechal. Incapable of being intimate with him, he respects him. He may not want to change but he can enable change, by enabling the escape of both Marechal and Rosenthal, the working classes and the Jews, twin horrors of the French aristocracy. This is no altruistic self-sacrifice. De Boeldieu dies wearing the white gloves that link him to von Rauffenstein and baffle Marechal. He owns his death. He looks like the Pied Piper, sitting on the snowy roof with his little flute, but it is only himself that he leads away. As he climbs higher, the shadow of the staircase thrown on the castle walls reminds one of the inside working of a clock. De Boeldieu is caught in the machinery of change but unlike von Rauffenstein he works his own way out. He is the author of his fairy tale.

Marechal cannot break down the barriers between himself and de Boeldieu, but he can negotiate another complex relationship with the ‘other’- with Rosenthal. Rosenthal is generous. He shares what he has, takes his turn. One senses that he knows how fragile his acceptance by others is. He calls himself a “Jew”, talks about miserliness, so no on else can do it first. And indeed, at his lowest moment, Marechal says what we know to be true:“ I never could stick Jews.” That this is true is important, because when Marechal returns, we understand that he realises how little a part being a Jew actually is of what constitutes Rosenthal. He’s simply human. When, at the end of the film, Marechal says, with love: “Goodbye you dirty Jew.”

Rosenthal bats back, “Goodbye old mate.” In this exchange Marechal has what he couldn’t get from de Boeldieu: an honest acknowledgment of difference alongside a genuine equality of friendship – class displaced by humanity. This is the hope of a future is worth having.

But maybe this future is illusory. An early idea for the film’s end was a scene at Maxim’s, where Marechal and Rosenthal agree to meet after the war. At their table are two empty chairs. They have either died or retreated back into their differences. The present ending is superior but such a bleak idea is worth examining, especially in relation to the film’s title. In Les Regles du Jeu Renoir writes and speaks a critical line: “…on this earth there is one thing which is terrible, and that is that everyone has their own good reasons.”

No act is arbitrary, Renoir understands, and we must understand that no part of his work is arbitrary. Despite his human connection with Rosenthal and later with Elsa, Marechal nastily snubs the black officer who shares a room with him at Wintersborn. Like de Boeldieu’s comment that he says ‘vous’ to his wife, this moment is quickly passed over, but we should not be quick to discount it. Many borders are redrawn in this film (between gender, race, class and sex), but not all. Perhaps it is the idea that they could be that is the great – and sweet – illusion.


Le Grande Illusion (1937 France 114 mins)

Prod. Co: Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique Prod:Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer Dir:Jean Renoir Scr:Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak Phot: Christian Matras Mus: Joseph Kosma Ed:Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir Prod Des: Eugène Lourié

Cast: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim



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