Engendering Nationalism: Enfants de Quelle Patrie?

By:
Edward Benson
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La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937) uses an on-screen performance of La Marseillaise to deflect war-time high jinx into a demonstration of national feeling surprising for a film read at the time as a disabused celebration of human solidarity. Casablanca is revered as one of the most stirring evocations of American patriotism; what is surprising abut this film is that it used the French national anthem to evoke this feeling.

The Marseillaise scene in La Grande Illusion is preceded by a rehearsal of the skit that made it possible: we learn the gender roles elaborated around the North Atlantic at the height of imperial conquest had been superseded by the Great War. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and his comrades review the class and race divisions between them, then go on to overcome them in singing the Marseillaise. Since the French national anthem is requested by an English officer in drag (played by Jacques Becker), however, the Marseillaise as it is sung here undermines not only traditional gender roles, but even the very divisions according to nation.

Indeed, Cartier's (Carette) flamboyant clowning emphasizes the need for mature men, and we see Maréchal and Rosenthal overcome fear, exhaustion, and pain to escape together into an uncertain future. In Casablanca, we see not only Ric but also Yvonne, his consort at the outset of the film, redeem themselves precisely by putting aside earlier petulance and accepting mature roles and responsibilities. In spite of denials of interest in La Grande Illusion on the part of the screenwriters of Casablanca, the staging of the Marseillaise in opposition to Die Wacht am Rein in both films suggests that they depend on positioning their stars temporarily as spectators, the better to allow them to demonstrate their adequacy for the roles they will soon have to play.

In both films, the stars choose to abandon women who need them; the films are closest in the way they demonstrate and perform the forgetting necessary for audiences to enjoy seeing their heroes choose male buddies over heterosexual mates.


Keywords: Film, Gender, Nationalism, History, Marseillaise
Stream: Media, Film Studies, Theatre, Communication
Presentation Type: Workshop Presentation in English
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Edward Benson

Professor of French, Department of Modern & Classical Languages
College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, University of Connecticut

Storrs, Connecticut, USA

I earned a doctorate in French from Brown U in Providence in 1971, and taught at Western Illinois and Central Missouri Universities, and at the Universities of Rhode Island, New Mexico and, most recently, Connecticut. I have written 20 articles on sixteenth-century literature on on French cinema, and published "Money and Magic in Montaigne" in 1995.

Ref: H06P0488