THE ELUSIVE CORPORAL (Jean Renoir, 1962)

By common critical procedure, Jean Renoir’s late-career Le caporal épinglé, because it is about two French soldiers who keep trying to escape a wartime German prison-camp, is complacently clubbed by comparison with Renoir’s La grande illusion a quarter-century earlier. In a sense, Renoir is inviting—daring—the comparison. From Jacques Perret’s 1947 autobiographical novel, Le caporal épinglé is set during the Second World War, while La grande illusion is set during the First. Parallel incidents further link the two films.
     Le caporal épinglé is marvelous. Jean-Pierre Cassel, exquisitely shading the breeziness of his personality, claims the role of a lifetime as The Corporal, becoming the film’s throbbingly human and yet delicately ambiguous center. The Corporal is “elusive” not only because the Germans cannot ultimately hold him, confiscating his self-determination, but also because he withholds an interior life even from his fellow prisoners. What he refrains from disclosing presumably helps him to survive and prevail. He is a Parisian, after all, and “Papa,” at the last his fellow escapee, may be too blunt to perceive his comrade’s subtlety.
     The fate of another French prisoner stings: bespectacled Ballochet (Claude Rich, excellent), whose opportunism offends but who, reclaiming his soul, attempts escape as a search for dignity. One of a number of superlative passages, this one is suspensefully reflected, inside the quarters of prisoners, in a comrade’s face: a devastating gauging of time amidst the sounds we hear from outside. Indeed, Renoir’s film generates immense concern for its heroic soldiers.
     One of the legs of The Corporal’s escape is a train ride. In the compartment are an obnoxious little boy, whom his mother tries reining in, and an obnoxious German drunk. This darkly funny passage proves the need for serendipity.
     Georges Leclerc contributes dreamy gray black-and-white cinematography.

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