Playing the role of a lifetime

Times Staff Writer

In Steve Suissa’s heart-tugging “Le Grand Role,” Stephane Freiss’ Maurice Kurz is an actor of perhaps 40 who has worked hard for years hoping for that breakthrough part. He has formed warm, sustaining friendships with four other actors, roughly his age, who also happen to be Jewish.

Good-natured rivalry emerges when the chance of a lifetime suddenly surfaces with the arrival in Paris of a famous American film director Rudolph Grichenberg (Peter Coyote) to shoot a Yiddish version of “The Merchant of Venice” in response to the continuing Mideast tensions and rising tide of anti-Semitism across Europe. Of the five friends, Kurz has the gravitas and presence to make him the predictable front-runner to land the role of Shylock. Indeed, Grichenberg is sufficiently impressed by Kurz to ask him to keep coming back; the director is not even concerned that Kurz doesn’t know much Yiddish. At Kurz’s final reading, Grichenberg tells him, “I’m sure you’re the one.”

From the outset Suissa, working from his and others’ adaptation from a novel by Daniel Goldenberg, makes clear that as important as Kurz’s career is, even more important is the passionate love he shares with his wife, Perla (Berenice Bejo). Kurz comes home to their small but charming garret apartment in a grand old building in Paris’ Belleville-Menilmontant neighborhood to tell Perla the encouraging news only to receive, straight out of the blue, a double whammy which thrusts him into playing the real-life role of a lifetime.

“Le Grand Role” is a tricky business, the kind of picture that can and does pack a wallop but cannot sustain a single false note. Suissa and his cast fortunately never falter, and the result is a rich emotional experience that deftly touches upon the inextricable relationship between life and art. It is a most tender love story, first and foremost, and a warm, affectionately humorous depiction of Kurz’s close-knit Jewish friends and colleagues.


The film is always fluid and cinematic, never stagy, yet is able to provide Freiss with a grand role, calling him to draw upon all his resources as a performer and all his humanity as a man.

Suissa also has given Coyote one of his best parts: His director is a tad self-important, has a ruthless survivor’s streak but is not lacking in kindness and eloquence if pushed to connect with them. He is also a convincingly inspired director, putting Kurz at ease and telling him that Shakespeare writes dialogue as if he is talking to his friends.

Bejo is lovely and gallant, and the veteran Francois Berleand lends a light, humorous note as Kurz’s hard-working but excitable agent. By the time it’s over, “Le Grand Role” touches a lot of bases but lingers longest as a testament to the ennobling power of love.



‘Le Grand Role’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Too emotionally intense for small children.

A First Run Features release. Producer-director Steve Suissa. Screenplay by Daniel Cohen, Daniel Goldenberg, Steve Suissa and Sophie Tepper; based on a novel by Goldenberg. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman. Editor Monica Coleman. Music David Marouani. Costumes Aline Dupays. Production designer Eric Barboza. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.


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