Who Won the War?

Bertrand Tavernier's historical epics and the French tradition of quality
by Saul Austerlitz  posted March 31, 2011
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In 1954, a young film critic named François Truffaut wrote a polemic sharply attacking what he referred to as "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema." The "certain tendency," as he saw it, was the French "tradition of quality"—the 10 to 12 films made each year in the country deemed worthy of sustained attention by the critical establishment. These films were devoted—too devoted, for Truffaut's taste—to psychological realism at the expense of fidelity to their source material. And no one was guiltier than Jean Aurenche, responsible for the screenplays for films like René Clément's Forbidden Games and Marcel Carné's Hôtel du Nord. "Talent, to be sure, is not a function of fidelity, but I consider an adaptation of value only when written by a man of the cinema," argued Truffaut. "Aurenche and [Pierre] Bost [Aurenche's frequent collaborator] are essentially literary men and I reproach them here for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it." Not done berating the "tradition of quality," Truffaut twists the knife one turn further: "Aurenche and Bost have made the works they adapt insipid, for equivalence is always with us, whether in the form of treason or timidity."

Truffaut would soon go on to spearhead the French New Wave, and the "tradition of quality," so derided by Truffaut, lost much of its luster when bathed in the reflected glow of Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer. But Aurenche never went away, eventually writing a series of films for another critic-turned-filmmaker named Bertrand Tavernier. Tavernier has been making films for 40 years but has never quite become a household name in the United States on the order of his New Wave predecessors—in part because of his perceived links to the "tradition of quality" and his narrative embrace of the dread "equivalence."

Tavernier not only collaborated with the prime suspect of the "tradition of quality," but incorporated into his work some of its fundamental tenets: its pictorial richness, its love for bons mots, and its psychological acuity. In films like Coup de Torchon and The Clockmaker (both written by Aurenche), Tavernier paid copious tribute to the classical French cinema, his work bearing more resemblance to that of Renoir and Carné than Godard and Truffaut.

His latest film, The Princess of Montpensier (opening in the States April 15), is the sort of lavish historical spectacle—swordfights! period costumes!—that Truffaut would have disdained. Set in 1567, when the bloody war between Catholics and Huguenots was nearing its end, Princess is a romance in the guise of a war film—or perhaps a war film in the guise of a romance. Opening with a sweeping shot of dead bodies on the field of battle, and a blast of angelic choir music, Montpensier begins with a sequence that, other than the costumes, could have been lifted from the series of war films Tavernier has been making, on and off, for two decades: Life and Nothing But (1989), Capitaine Conan (1996), and Safe Conduct (2002). Like its predecessors, Montpensier prefers to begin near the end; the war is almost over, but the battles at home have only just begun. Tavernier's sweeping, romantic, lush, and often despairing war films are antithetical to much that the New Wave stood for. Perhaps this is why they still require defending.

Tavernier's war films are baggy and oddly shaped, lurching from one episode to another, one mood to the next. They are rescued from chaos by their frantic energy, and by the achingly sympathetic glow of their characters. Preferring narrative playfulness to the stylistic playfulness of the New Wave, Tavernier's films are heartfelt throwbacks to the tradition of quality. And his war trilogy is a consideration of the terrible cost of combat, preferring the sidelong to the head-on view.

Life and Nothing But starts after the guns of August have gone silent, stumbling onto the nightmare of the First World War two years after its conclusion. Major Delaplane (Philippe Noiret, a Tavernier regular) is the officer assigned to locate and identify the hundreds of thousands of unclaimed bodies of fallen French soldiers. The pig-headed Delaplane refuses to curry favor by assisting the powerful. Approached by the relative of a prominent industrialist, he shoos her away irritatedly: with 349,771 French soldiers still waiting to be identified, "tell the patriarch of Shukert & De Courtil that a 350-thousandth of my staggering incompetence is devoted to his personal case."

The world of Life and Nothing But is one of odious patriotism, of stifling devotion to a country that sacrificed its young to the Moloch of war. Everywhere the major turns, there is further evidence of the insanity: sculptors planning fatuous monuments to the dead, all gilded bronze and winged victory; village politicians negotiating for the rights to claim a nearby farm's dead as their own; generals demanding the body of an unknown soldier, even as Delaplane is devoting himself to identifying them.

A postwar war film, Life and Nothing But features action sequences that serve as gruesome echoes of familiar combat imagery. The train tunnel in which Delaplane and his men conduct much of their work is like the entrance cavern to the realm of death, circled warily by the survivors, who pick through the detritus of war—medals, pins—in the hopes of recognizing the dead. France may be ready to move on, but Delaplane is not yet done counting, as he tells Irène (Sabine Azéma), whose husband has gone missing: "These are my final dreadful statistics. In comparison to the duration of the Allied Victory March down the Champs-Elysées, about three hours, I think, I calculated that given the same speed, step, and military formations, the march of those who died in this inexpiable madness would have lasted 11 days and 11 nights. Forgive me this crushing accuracy."

Life and Nothing But begins after the tragedy, as does Capitaine Conan, which circles back to the very end of the war and its immediate aftermath. The pas de deux of Delaplane and Irène is recreated in the complicated affection between two military officers: bookish, quiet Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan) and raucous, impulsive Conan (Philippe Torreton). Tavernier's nimble camera tracks swiftly through the killing fields, its movement as effortless as Conan's own. "He's good with words. I get in a muddle," Conan observes of Norbert, and the split between the two men—one merely a soldier, the other a self-described warrior—becomes the fulcrum on which this exuberant, and eventually heartbreaking, movie rests.

With its central plotline of innocent soldiers railroaded by the military establishment, Capitaine Conan owes a significant debt to Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, but Tavernier's film is woollier than that 1957 masterpiece. This is a military film that, like its predecessor, has little patience for the pomp of warfare. As an officer reads out bulletins from Marshal Petain, a handful of troops trudge to the margins, drop their trousers, and take a literal and metaphorical shit on the pronouncements of the establishment.

Conan spills over the edge of the screen, his great good cheer undercut by an ever-present edge of fury: "They sent 80,000 to the slaughter in 20 minutes....WE won the war. 3,000 of us." Conan is a man in his element in the trenches, confidently striding through, head held imperviously high, even as the Germans shell: "Just the 9 o'clock mail!" With the war's end, the rules have changed, and the intellectual Norbert is the better suited for the murky postwar engagement in Romania. The war is both over and ongoing, and Conan tragically struggles to understand the new rules of engagement.

Order battles chaos, and intellect seeks the upper hand against impetuousness, yet Conan and Norbert understand that they are not enemies, but merely men of different temperament, united in war and divided in peace. Tavernier leans on Truffaut's feared "equivalence" here, preferring not to choose between his protagonists. Conan is only truly alive when he is fighting—a fact underscored by Capitaine Conan's tragic coda, where Norbert visits the prematurely aged warrior in his hometown. The war's victims are not all found on the field of battle.

The spirit of Aurenche, and of the tradition of quality, hangs over these films, so it was appropriate that Aurenche himself would become a protagonist in 2002's Safe Conduct, a tribute to that long-lambasted era in French filmmaking, and to the quiet heroism of its creators. The period has moved forward to the Nazi occupation of Paris during the Second World War, but the fundamental conflict—between messy vigor and quiet dedication—remains. Denis Podalydès's Aurenche is the Conan figure, juggling three women and four scripts—or is it four women and three scripts? Jacques Gamblin's Jean Devaivre, an assistant director to filmmakers like Maurice Tourneur, is the film's version of Norbert, sneaking off for French Resistance missions between shoots.

Safe Conduct is every bit as funny and vivacious as its predecessors, attuned to the hilarity and desperation of making films in wartime. The lights don't work, the food on actors' plates is all made of rutabaga, and the sets are so cold that everyone keeps their overcoats on until it's time to shoot. The film is a choral cacophony of competing, Renoir-esque voices, but the stakes seem, if anything, even higher. Not warriors by nature, both Aurenche and Devaivre come to see making films as another kind of resistance. "I have the courage to write, but I can't stand physical pain," Aurenche writes in a letter to one of his lovers. "Still, I want to face these shameful times with integrity, using my own weapons, not writing a single scene or line, even just to eat, that might seem to support all the horrible things I loathe." The film may modestly prefer the upstanding Devaivre to Aurenche, who practically disappears from its last third, but it refuses to tip its hand entirely. In the cauldron of war, no approach to life is preferable to any other.

For Safe Conduct and its protagonists, the jokey atmosphere becomes harder and harder to sustain, interrupted as it is by reminders of the horror creeping in: the comic number of eating scenes written by an imprisoned screenwriter living on meager rations; the Jewish composer forced out of a job, a yellow star on his lapel; the wood requisitioned from the film crew to build coffins for Nazi soldiers on the Russian front (itself an echo of a similar scene in Life and Nothing But).

Safe Conduct builds steadily in intensity, balancing its raucous good cheer with slower, quieter moments that intentionally draw attention to their elegance, and to the distance between these events and ourselves. Tavernier self-consciously pauses the film twice to allow us to feel the passage of time. The first comes near the middle, when Tavernier abruptly cuts from Devaivre's reunion with his brother to his wife's voice. Over a slowed-down film clip, she contradicts her husband's assurances that her brother would also eventually return from captivity. Instead, all that is left of him is this fleeting image of him onscreen. "Jacques Dubuis, my brother, never came back. And I never saw him again. Except once, 57 years after his arrest, in Eight Men in a Chateau. He was an extra. That's him!," she exclaims, as the frame freezes on a slim man in a suit, his hair slicked back, taking tickets at a theater, then plays it back in extreme slow motion. "The Germans sent him to die in a Silesian salt mine. He grew so thin his campmates called him ‘Stringbean.' He was 20 years old."

The moment is electrifying, and deeply moving, and serves to prepare us for the conclusion, when another intruder barrels his way into the film. As Devaivre cycles away from his life at the studio and into hiding, his cover blown, a voice comes onto the soundtrack, filling us in on what happens to the film's other characters, and to Devaivre himself, who becomes a director in his own right after the war. Who is this mysterious man? We don't know until his last words, when he tells us that "53 years later, in April 2000, Devaivre told me that if he had to relive that period, he'd probably be stupid enough to do exactly the same thing." A missing puzzle piece clicks into place. The voice is Tavernier's, asserting the link between the "tradition of quality" represented by Devaivre and himself. Tavernier is not only the successor to figures like Devaivre and Aurenche; he is their poet, singing of their lives and times with wit, good humor, and deep feeling. In so doing, he has adopted their motto, suggested by a fellow screenwriter, as his own: "Some make sheets, some make bread, others make up stories. We are story-makers, no more, no less." 


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Mélanie Thierry and Gaspard Ulliel in The Princess of Montpensier, directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Photo Gallery: Who Won the War?


Saul Austerlitz is at work on a book on the history of American film comedy.

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