Review: Le Grand Role

Le Grand Role
Photo: First Run Features

Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this,” sang Kelly Clarkson all the way to the top of the Billboard charts. She could have been singing about the lead character from Steve Suissa’s Le Grand Role: Maurice Kurtz (Stéphane Freiss), a struggling actor in his 30s who gets the part of a lifetime in an all-Yiddish screen adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Maurice doesn’t scream Shylock, but director Rudolph Grishenberg (Peter Coyote) likes the way that he reads the part, so much so he gives Maurice a big ol’ bear hug after the actor slam dunks Merchant’s famous “if you prick us” speech.

But wait. Having secured le grand role, Maurice learns that Shylock is no longer his to chew on, now that a superstar actor’s schedule has freed up. No matter, because it’s at precisely this moment that Maurice learns that his wife, Perla (Bérénice Bejo), is dying of cancer, and rather than tell her that she lost the part, he and his friends use their subpar acting skills and all sorts of Photoshop brouhaha to convince her otherwise. So this is le grand role!

Suissa’s film doesn’t hold a candle to the heart and political perspective of Good Bye Lenin!. That’s in part because the filmmaker and his cast seem equally disinterested with the schematic direction that the story takes after act one. All the while, Le Grand Role’s screenwriters (all four of them) attempt and fail to summon a compelling parallel between Merchant’s anti-Semitic baggage and the Jewish Maurice’s own struggles as an actor.

Quickly, then, the film becomes a shapeless mess of half-assed intentions and untapped resources. For one, is Grishenberg a stand-in for Steven Spielberg and is his (unrealistic) all-Yiddish production of Merchant—in essence, an indie-slumming project for the consumerist director—an articulation of his Jewish guilt? If so, these are points that Le Grand Role seems unwilling to explore. Michael Radford would have been a more credible model for Grishenberg, hence justifying the audience-pandering references to Al Pacino, but when was the last time Radford poured out of a limo and was mobbed by a giddy throng of fans? Not only does the film’s first half strain to permit its second, the whole damn thing strains for credibility.

 Cast: Stéphane Freiss, Bérénice Bejo, Peter Coyote, François Berléand, Lionel Abelanski, Olivier Sitruk, Laurent Bateau, Mickaël Sabah, Rufus, Stéphan Guérin-Tillié, Valérie Benguigui, Danièle Denie, Smadi Wolfman  Director: Steve Suissa  Screenwriter: Daniel Cohen, Daniel Goldenberg, Steve Suissa, Sophie Tepper  Distributor: First Run Features  Running Time: 89 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2004  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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