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La Grand Role

Studio: First Run Features
Directed by: Steve Suissa; Written by: Daniel Cohen, Daniel Goldenberg, Steve Suissa and Sophie Tepper; Starring: Stéphane Freiss, Bérénice Bejo and Peter Coyote

Oct 05, 2005 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In movies, when we are introduced to a couple that is enamored of each other, it’s often a safe bet that one of them will become the innocent victim of something dreadful. France’s sentimental Le Grand Role, despite its intriguing subtexts, is no exception to this pattern.

Small-time actor Maurice Kurz (Stéphane Freiss) adores his lovely wife Perla (Bérénice Bejo) to the extent that he secretly takes candid, keepsake photos of her. Perla is equally affectionate for Maurice, as just the thought of him attending temple sends her into a lustful tizzy. But Perla has been keeping secrets of her own, and her increasing reticence causes Maurice to fear that she might be having an affair.

At the same time, Maurice and his tight band of four other Jewish actor friends learn that prominent American director Rudolph Grichenberg (Peter Coyote) is arriving in town to cast the role of Shylock for a Yiddish film version of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Grichenberg’s character appears to be based on Spielberg, at least in terms of stature, so landing the role would be a life-changing event for any of the five actors. Maurice, who doesn’t speak Yiddish, possesses a mix of humility and composure that appeals to Grichenberg. Through the director’s encouragement, Maurice rediscovers a passion for his art, picks up some Yiddish and wins the role of Shylock. But when Maurice tells Perla the good news, she finally unloads her secret on him.

Le Grand Role, which examines how performance enters into our private lives, while also touching upon what it means to be Jewish in today’s culture, intends to be a sweet film. But, unwittingly, it reveres vocation at the expense of Maurice and Perla’s love—the result of an implausible plot that prolongs the secrets and lies that keep the couple apart in the latter stages of the film.

Aside from this, and ill-timed high jinks, there’s nothing shoddy about Le Grand Role. Suissa composes a variety of attractive interior and exterior Paris settings, and exhibits master’s touch when he negotiates an apartment shot with a mirror reflection. Freiss, with his sunken eyes and perpetual stubble, is quietly commanding yet amiable as Maurice, at times resembling Belmondo. And Bejo remains alluring throughout. But Coyote steals the show. Somehow, he manages to fuse the Spielberg prototype with a near reprisal of a scene he performed for Spielberg in E.T. more than 20 years ago!

Le Grand Role is adapted from Daniel Goldenberg’s novel of the same name, and the film has been screening at Jewish film festivals this year. It’s curious how the Jewish concerns raised early in the film are, in the end, subverted by Hollywood improbability.

Author rating: 4/10

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