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Jan. 7-13 at the American Film Institute

Rather than contemplate World War II, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion anticipated it—and then became its victim. An anti-war parable made in 1937 and featuring a sympathetic Jewish character, the film was loathed by Goebbels (although both Goering and Mussolini, curiously, liked it). The camera negative was seized when the Germans took Paris in 1940, and became Soviet property when Berlin fell in 1945. Although the film was not unavailable for long—Renoir managed to construct a new master negative from dupes for a 1958 reissue—the original negative was missing for decades. Ironically, for much of that time it was in France: The Soviets sent it to the Toulouse Cinematheque in the mid-’60s, but it sat there unrecognized for 30 years.

Now restored to its full 117 minutes and outfitted with new subtitles, Grand Illusion (more accurately translated The Great Illusion) was originally conceived as “an adventure film” based on the escape from a German POW camp of one of Renoir’s World War I comrades. As scripted by the director and Charles Spaak, however, the film became something quite different from an adventure tale. The film has more comic scenes than violent ones, and is as much about class as war. The class theme is introduced by the first meeting between Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay)—who’ve just been shot down—and Capt. Von Rauffenstein (played by one of Renoir’s idols, director Erich von Stroheim). “If they’re officers, invite them to lunch,” orders Von Rauffenstein, who is pleased to discover that one of his new captives, Boeldieu, is a member of the European aristocracy. Perhaps too commendably, Boeldieu eventually demonstrates to Von Rauffenstein that other virtues have tempered the 19th-century ideal of aristocratic gallantry.

Thus, the film belongs to the working-class Marechal, who eventually makes his escape from a medieval castle—another symbol of Europe’s crumbling social order—with Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), the bourgeois Jew whose family’s food parcels have kept all the officers well-fed. Although his character seems a stereotype today, Rosenthal is a reasonably humane portrayal for ’30s Europe. It’s through Rosenthal, in addition, that Renoir demonstrates the complexity of his vision. Free, but exhausted and starving, Marechal and Rosenthal begin to squabble, with the former calling his companion a “dirty Jew.” In Grand Illusion, war is an evil that sometimes trumps another evil: the class and ethnic snobbery that World War II was soon to magnify into horrors unimagined by Renoir’s tidy, almost blithe, drama.

“This is a diary of hate,” begins Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair, only slightly altering a line from the first page of Graham Greene’s semiautobiographical 1951 novel. Of course, it’s actually a story of love. What kind of love? Perhaps I shouldn’t say. Because Greene’s tale is, in a way, a mystery, although not the sort of mystery contemporary filmgoers expect.

The film’s ex-lovers are Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), a moderately successful novelist, and Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), the wife of cold, formal government official Henry Miles (Stephen Rea). Maurice and Sarah met at a party and became lovers as Hitler planned his invasion of Western Europe; they split during Germany’s futile but destructive final assault on Britain: the V1 bombings of 1944. When the story begins, however, it is 1946, and Maurice is still trying to understand why Sarah abruptly left him. He’s so obsessed with the subject, in fact, that when a distraught Henry reveals his fears that Sarah is having an affair, Maurice volunteers to engage a private detective to follow Sarah. And when Henry insists that Maurice should do no such thing, the novelist nonetheless uses the husband’s moment of uncharacteristic candor as an excuse to hire the mousy, earnest Parkis (Ian Hart), who tracks Sarah with the help of Parkis’ young son, Lance (Samuel Bould).

To go further would risk ruining the film’s hushed but incendiary surprises, which have an impact similar—although of a very different sort—to those of Jordan’s best previous films, Mona Lisa and The Crying Game. It’s tempting to continue summarizing anyway, however, just to demonstrate how skillfully the writer-director has adapted Greene’s book. Suffice it to say that Jordan has simplified the narrative without damaging the theme. Indeed, this version of the tale, although it significantly alters one droll development, is lighter on its feet than the original. Viewers who can’t handle the film’s final leap of faith can be assured that the novel takes an even more challenging one.

What’s most remarkable about The End of the Affair, however, is not its theme but its skill. Fiennes is clearly an actor who feels most at home in the ’40s and ’50s, but other cast members are equally persuasive. Rea and Moore show their range in roles that are far from their usual ones. (Interestingly, although Moore’s Sarah is credibly English, the mistress to whom Greene dedicated the novel, Catherine Walston, was American.) Still, the exemplary Hart very nearly steals the spotlight, giving the bumbling, naive Parkis a remarkable dignity.

Although Michael Nyman’s score is one of his more monotonous, the rest of the cast and crew do impeccable work. Cinematographer Roger Pratt, production designer Anthony Pratt, and costume designer Sandy Powell skillfully evoke the period without merely creating a diorama of ’40s London. (It helps that the movie, even better than the book, avoids the usual landmarks.) Fittingly, this London is both mundane and haunted, both tidily domestic and fraught with danger.

That danger is spiritual as well as physical, as is typical of Greene but unusual among contemporary Anglo-American cinema. In a season when many high-ticket films have been trivial or ponderous or both, The End of the Affair is both serious and lithe. And you don’t have to follow the film’s logic to its conclusion to appreciate those rare qualities.

There’s already been some gnashing of teeth over what Scott Hicks has done to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, but I’m not sure that the writer-director and the novel don’t deserve each other. Like The English Patient, this is a sententious, self-consciously cinematic novel given a sententious, self-consciously cinematic treatment. If anything, the film’s visuals are more beautiful than the book’s language, although Hicks compensates by making the movie even more boring—and then pouring James Newton Howard’s music over the whole thing like maple syrup falling on cedars.

Set in Washington state’s picturesque San Juan Islands, Guterson’s story is a complicated one, further tangled through a series of flashbacks indebted to the French New Wave/new novel of Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and others. The framing device is the trial of Kazuo (Kabuo in the book) Miyamoto (Rick Yune), who’s accused on limited evidence of murdering laconic fisherman Carl Heine (Eric Thal). The death may very well have been accidental, but there is a supposed motive: the Heine family’s sale of some farmland to the Miyamotos, a deal that was aborted when the Miyamotos were interned during World War II. Thus, Snow Falling on Cedars follows a chronology similar to that of The End of the Affair; both reflect a postwar perspective on shattering wartime events.

Underscoring this parallel is the presence of two lovers separated by war and society: One-armed war veteran Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) still desperately loves childhood companion Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), who married Kazuo after their treatment during the war further convinced members of the local Japanese-American community that they could not trust outsiders. Chambers (as in “chambers of the human heart,” the novel’s last words) inherited the newspaper and some of the nobility of his father, the island’s crusading publisher (Sam Shepard). As a reporter, he does a better job of investigating the case than do the sheriff (Richard Jenkins) and the prosecutor (James Rebhorn), yet he’s reluctant to tell what he knows because he’s conflicted by his love for Hatsue. Not that such inner torment really matters. There’s little drama in this static, overly solemn scenario, which cuts from the foghorns of Puget Sound to the stately oratory of Kazuo’s faltering but still righteous defense attorney (Max von Sydow, giving the part more than it requires).

The fog drifts in but—like so much in this movie—it’s less metaphor than scenery. Filmmakers such as Resnais used elaborate flashback schemes to suggest the enigmas of history and human consciousness, but Hicks (who directed the equally grandiose but more focused Shine) and co-writer Ron Bass (the prolific hack who penned such psychobabblers as Rain Man and What Dreams May Come) have nothing so provocative in mind. Despite the film’s evanescent images and freak-out montage, Snow Falling on Cedars resolves like a conventional crime drama, with a little bit of justice meant to salve the wounds of a whole world. But then that’s pretty much how the novel ends, too. CP