Le Grand Rôle
The Yiddish reading of Shylock's "Hath Not a Jew Eyes?" speech is among the most memorable scenes in Le Grand Rôle (2004). The performance lands actor Maurice (Stéphane Freiss) the role of a lifetime. When the role is then given to a Hollywood star, Maurice takes on another even greater part, hiding his loss from his wife, Perla (Bérénice Bejo), who is dying of cancer. Le Grand Rôle is a tearjerker, but also an exploration of Jewish-Christian relations in Europe. Maurice's audition follows a speech by an elderly Holocaust survivor (Clément Harari). In the spirit of "all the world's a stage," the old man asserts that everyone plays roles, even that of survivor. And, perhaps, he suggests, survivors can write Shylock better than Shakespeare.
I teach early English literature and I am eager to encourage students to think not only about how Jews have been represented in works like Merchant, but how Jews have responded and continue to respond to this tradition. Some of the most engaging new research on medieval and early modern Jewish-Christian relations addresses interaction between cultures, studying not just "the Jew that Shakespeare drew," but how Jews played a role in shaping early European cultures. Maurice can play his "great role" because he is supported by a loyal group of friends, who, like him, navigate life in Paris as Jews. The film opens in a restaurant, where a powerful director pokes fun at Maurice's Jewish identity, provoking a spirited response from Perla. The film closes with a widowed Maurice on his way to another restaurant meal, this time buoyed by his Jewish friends. He stares at a poster for the film he almost starred in, remarking that he has dubbed Shylock's Yiddish lines instead. Jewish life in France seems more precarious now than when Le Grand Rôle premiered a decade ago; the question of the survival of Jewish voices in Europe is more relevant than ever.