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The first color film by renowned French filmmaker Ren Clair was one of the director's favorites among his post-World War II output, a personal project he referred to two years after its release in press interviews as "a very sentimental film... because it is situated in the period of my childhood." A self-described variation on the story of Don Juan, The Grand Maneuver (1955) is set in a French provincial town during the summer of 1914 complete with an idealized color palette of purple, pink and blue.
Grard Philipe, a familiar face from such Clair films as the Faustian Beauty and the Devil (1950) and Beauties of the Night (1952), had shot to stardom in his native country in 1949 with the evocative Yves Allgret dramatic thriller Une si jolie petite plage and was considered one of France's most magnetic leading men in the aftermath of World War II. Here that charisma is utilized for the role of Armand de la Verne, a lieutenant engaged in five casual affairs who wagers he can win the heart of Marie-Louise Rivire (Port of Shadows'  Michle Morgan), only to find himself falling in love with her for real. Counterpoint is provided by the more comical courtship between his friend Flix (Yves Robert), a corporal, and a very young Brigitte Bardot in one of her first roles as Lucie. The following year Bardot would star in Roger Vadim's ...And God Created Woman, and French cinema would never be quite the same.
Clair's childhood near Versailles may account for the wistful tone of this film, which adopts a familiar romantic scenario and manages to tweak it into something ephemeral with an unexpected final scene that gives it more weight than many viewers expect. Clair was famously wary of adopting new technology into his films, famously resisting the adoption of sound on Le Million (1931) and here switching to color cinematography by giving it an often austere, painterly quality with very few close ups. As Celia McGerr also noted in her 1980 book about Clair, he skillfully "uses glass - mirrors, windows, doors - to emphasize the constriction of society," though of course it also gives the film a glittering, sometimes magical atmosphere of a world gone by.
Though he would live until 1981, Clair was already in his twilight period as a director here after returning to France from an extended detour in Hollywood. There he had transitioned to English films skillfully with such classics as I Married a Witch (1942) and And Then There Were None (1945), where his trademark impish humor and sophisticated visual sense had proven to be major assets. This was his third film upon returning to France, and he only completed three more full features before retiring in 1965, largely due to the scorn heaped upon him with the arrival of the French New Wave.
Some of that disdain could already be sensed upon this film's release; though it received two significant awards, the Prix Louis-Delluc and the Prix Mlis, it was met with restrained praise by most French critics and a similar tempered reaction in the United States. The Hollywood Reporter summed it up with the dubious label of a "frothy concoction" when the film opened stateside in 1957, while Variety found it "a thoroughly diverting, light-hearted and frequently thoughtful bit of Gallic fluff" and the Los Angeles Examiner termed it "delightfully sly and witty." Such assessments would be compliments under normal circumstances, but with the major French cinematic upheaval of 1959 looming ahead, Clair's dominance as one of his country's most important filmmakers was about to be severely minimized. However, as the decades since have proven already, his reputation not only managed to survive but now stands prouder than ever before.
By Nathaniel Thompson