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Thursday, January 9, 2014

DVD Review: The Grand Role

Recently I reviewed a film titled Romeo And Juliet In Yiddish, in which a woman attempts to create a modern Yiddish adaptation of the famous tragedy. Several years earlier, The Grand Role told the story of an American film director creating a Yiddish version of The Merchant Of Venice. Actually, the real focus of The Grand Role is the relationship of Maurice (Stéphane Freiss) and his wife, Perla, while he auditions for the role of Shylock in the Yiddish film version of the play. The Grand Role is funny, warm, sweet, endearing, and intelligent. The characters and the relationships all ring true.

The film opens at a restaurant, where one man cautions Maurice about the potatoes, saying there’s bacon in them. Maurice continues to eat them, leading the man to remark, “It’s the first time I’ve seen someone of the Jewish persuasion eating pork.” Maurice responds, “I eat everything.” The man compliments Maurice, telling him he’s a fine actor, but then also wonders why he doesn’t get more work. Maurice’s wife, Perla (the beautiful Bérénice Bejo, who more recently starred in The Artist), sticks up for Maurice. That leads to a mild argument between the couple later when they get outside. In the car, he takes a photo of her, saying: “I love your face when you’re angry. A rabbit in a pit bull skin.” And she, perhaps in spite of herself, gives him a little smile. This is an excellent sequence, as it establishes their characters, their relationship, Maurice’s work situation, and the fact that Maurice isn’t involved in his Jewish religion, and it does all of this without resorting to obvious exposition.

In another early scene, we see Maurice taking photos of his wife while she sets up her shop window. She doesn’t know he’s taking photos, but it doesn’t seem at all creepy. It somehow comes off as loving, almost like a game. Later we learn his wife also has a secret.

When Maurice and his friends (actors all) learn that a famous American director is coming to town and will be attending temple, they all decide it would be a good idea to embrace their faith as well, or at least to appear to. Maurice takes some time finding his yarmulke, then asks Perla, “Do I look like a regular temple-goer?” His friends poke fun at him for arriving to temple in a car until the director, Mr. Grichenberg (Peter Coyote), arrives by car too. They learn that Grichenberg is in Paris to shoot a Yiddish film version of The Merchant Of Venice, and Maurice soon gets a call from his agent, telling him he secured him an audition for the role of Shylock.

All of his friends have the same agent (a nice touch), and all but one of them are offered the chance to audition for Shylock. The agent meets all of them, and tells them to dress as Jews for their auditions. “Shylock’s a Jew, so dress Jewish.” The irony of these men all being actual Jews doesn’t enter into the agent’s thinking. It's all about business, and the agent is actually an interesting character.

When Maurice gets a callback, he and his wife postpone their trip to Israel to visit her sister. His friends are all incredibly supportive. But just when everything is going well, Maurice receives two blows, back to back. And the film takes a more serious turn.

The Grand Role stars Stéphane Freiss, Bérénice Bejo, Peter Coyote and Lionel Abelanski. It was directed by Steve Suissa. It is available on DVD through First Run Features. The DVD includes a photo gallery and an introduction by the director, in which he says they prepared the film as they would a play, with rehearsals.

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