30 May 2005 | noralee
An Amusing French Jewish Update of O. Henry's "The Last Leaf"
"Le Grand Rôle" is an amusing updated French Jewish take on O. Henry's "The Last Leaf." Based on a book by Daniel Goldenberg that doesn't appear to be available in English, it gently pokes fun at just about everything it touches, including actors, theaters, directors, and religious, ethnic and generational divisions within the Jewish community.
It sets as a satirical premise the notion that Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" is the problem and opportunity for Jewish actors that "Othello" is for black actors, with references as well to Ronald Colman in "A Double Life" and the Al Pacino adaptation that must have been in production at the same time as this film.
In a droll satire of Steven Spielberg exploring his Jewish identity through "Schindler's List," Peter Coyote plays a big Hollywood director who comes to Paris to direct a Yiddish version of "Merchant" (scenes with him are mostly in English), setting off more than a frisson of hope and anxiety among a close group of unemployed Jewish actor friends as they position themselves for the role, including amusing efforts to gain credibility with the director in and out of the humiliating auditions, such as politicking at temple services most don't otherwise attend and searching out elderly relatives for Yiddish lessons. Their comfort with each other amidst their diversity is also unusual in films with Jewish characters, as they range from married with children, to divorced, to a womanizer, one is observant, another passionately Sephardic who insists that an authentic production of "Merchant" should be in Ladino (the Judeo-Iberic language of Jews who fled Spain).
But the humor is centered by one of the most unusual sights ever in films - an attractive, young Jewish married couple's stable, loving relationship. Their devotion puts the actors' egos into poignant perspective as the marriage is tested by the ultimate challenge, showing that even the most self-centered seeming people can have a heart in the face of personal tragedy.
Stéphane Freiss as the husband can move from funny to sad sack to poignant on a dime. Bérénice Bejo as his wife creates a real, intelligent woman to care about; I was particularly impressed that she found the only copy in Paris of the play in Yiddish.
The English subtitles are inadequate and it is particularly frustrating as none of the pop songs on the soundtrack are translated as they seem to have some significance in commenting on the story, particularly at the end.