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by Jordan Hiller


Le Grand Role (2005)

If all the main characters in Le Grand Role were not wonderfully akin to our very own beliefs and faiths, the movie, about a struggling actor husband, a beautiful, young dying wife and The Grand Role he plays for her as she fades away, would still survive and be a heartfelt diversion (clocking in at a brisk 86 minutes).  Because this cool, handsome, talented, sincere, and wild crew of French thirty-somethings are our people, and represent themselves proudly as such, a Jewish audience cannot help but get involved.

The film, written by Daniel Cohen based on a book by Daniel Goldenberg, comes out of France at a time where any news that involves a Jew is tragic or petrifying, whether it be firebombs at synagogues or an assault on a boy who dared to wear a yarmulke – and that really is somewhat of an important accomplishment. Sure the arts community prides itself on being liberal and movies are certainly not life, but it is worth noting that this is a film which premiered at The Paris Film Festival and has had a world-wide release that portrays a modern, vibrant, fun-loving culture that happens to be constructed of Sephardic Jews who, while not entirely orthodox, have a loving devotion and loyalty to their religion and to their community. Of course I am not so ignorant as to assume that this movie will curb anti-Semitism throughout Europe, but it was simply pleasant to watch a couple of “normal” Jews in a movie, praying, talking about visiting Israel, wearing tefillin, discussing Shabbos, getting turned on by doing Mitzvoth (I’m serious folks), who looked and sounded like Johnny Depp as opposed to Woody Allen. It’s nice to have a film open with a character’s stunning Jewish wife stand up for him to some ignoramus at a party who makes a crack about her husband eating pig. No, it is not a necessary confirmation of my Jewish pride – it’s simply refreshing.

With the Jewish angle now squared away, we can move on to the actual content of the film…where once again Judaism factors in, but in a different, less compelling way. The somewhat screwball dark comedy/tragedy (think Life is Beautiful) set up is this:  After a superstar famous Jewish director (Peter Coyote, last seen in The Hebrew Hammer) named Grishenberg (an obvious send up of Spielberg) comes to France to film a Yiddish version of The Merchant of Venice, the close knit group of Jewish actors audition for the part of a lifetime, Shylock. There is an enjoyable (for us) scene that takes place on Shabbos where the group, led by their one orthodox member (and he’s the studliest one!), attempt to ambush Grishinberg in shul by pretending to daven and then wish him a Good Shabbos as he leaves. Finally they audition, and one actor played touchingly (and with a spectacular Yiddish delivery of the “If they prick us do we not bleed” monologue”) by Stephane Freiss gets the role only to lose it after a soulless Grishenberg gives it away when a big name Hollywood star becomes available. In that sense, since Merchant is a play with a few Jewish themes and Grishenberg is Jewish, one can mistakenly assume that Judaism commands the movie – but that would be a gross error.

Le Grand Role’s magic for me is that the love between Freiss’ Maurice and Berenice Bejo’s Perla transcends anything that Judaism could possibly take credit for. They are in love so deeply that it is uncomfortable to watch them. Their romance drips from the screen and melts your shiny entertainment unit from Brooklyn. In other words, beyond my satisfaction that these real, fully imagined, inspired characters were, like me, Jewish, there was no need to push things along a Jewish trajectory. Why couldn’t their being descended from Abraham and Sara be enough?  I mean, The Merchant of Venice in Yiddsih directed by a Spielberg clone!! That is trying a bit too hard to make a point for my taste. I also found it unfortunate that the film (or the book rather) needed to succumb to this rather contrived device wherein Maurice, along with his buddies, spends the last weeks of his wife’s life attempting to propel a charade that he is the star of a Grishinberg movie. While she dies at home (no explanation for or concentration on where or how she is being treated) he is out doing nothing just so she can assume he is on a set and poised for fame. Maybe it is noble to want one’s wife to think they are going to be fine even after she passes on, but the entire premise is convincingly unromantic and flies in the face of the relationship that was so mesmerizing to watch before Perla announced her disease. I would much rather have seen Maurice actually get the role, continue his love affair with his soul mate, and struggle with the part of Shylock and deal with burgeoning fame. The film we end up with feels abrupt as if Perla’s cancer was created to hurry along the bittersweet end. Yes, a love can be evidenced by the commitment communicated in the face of death, but with these two fire-starters, the real nachas was experiencing their affection in the face of life.    

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