Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan – Captain Conan (1996)

Have you seen Capitaine Conan? You haven’t? Well then I’d like to know why you are sitting here, reading this blog when what you should really do, is chase a copy of this unique and brilliant movie? This is one of the best war movies I have seen in a while. I’m doing pretty bad with movies these days and have found my attention span is quite short but this movie had me glued to the screen. WWI movies tend to be a bit repetitive, it’s either the atrocity of the trenches, facial wounds, the analysis of the shortcomings of the high command or the incredible amount of dead and lost soldiers. All of it worthy themes but done a few times and quite brilliantly too. That’s why it was such a surprise that there is hardly any of this in Capitaine Conan. 

Capitaine Conan is based on the largely autobiographical novel Captain Conan by Roger Vercel who won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for the book. Vercel based the main character on one of his comrades.

The most interesting aspect is that the movie (and the book) takes place on the Bulgarian border where French and English troops fought a guerrilla like war against Germans and Bulgarians. There are trenches but a lot of the combat is hand-to-hand combat, man against man.

The lieutenant Capt Conan is an insubordinate, extremely wild and brutal soldier. But also someone who cherishes camaraderie. Instead of eating with the fellow officers, he rather sits somewhere with the men. He leads a group of 50 men that he calls his wolves. They are all equally fearless, brutal and, as it seems, addicted to violence but also a tight-knit group, ready to do anything for each other. There is nothing they like more than fighting man against man and mostly with knives. Because Conan is highly efficient and can turn around the course of hopeless battles, his superiors let him do as he pleases but when the war ends, things go wrong. His bloodthirsty men are too easily bored. They start to commit one crime after the other. Pillaging, raping, robbery. Conan who calls himself a warrior, as opposed to a soldier, isn’t any better and let’s his men get away with everything. Conan has long-lost his sense of right and wrong and all that he cares about are his men. War has turned him into a brute.

Among this violent crowd is a more gentle lieutenant, who wants to become a school teacher in peace time. If it wasn’t for him, who is appointed as prosecutor, Conan and his men would be court-martialled. The friendship between these two men grows slowly but once it’s established, it is indestructible.

It’s quite difficult to do this movie justice as it is very complex and quite fast-paced. Conan is a fascinating character and the way Tavernier depicts him we can’t help but admire him. In the world of WWI, in which there are so many officers who never dirty their hands but make the most important decisions without having a clue, someone like Conan, with a sense of honour and dignity, despite the brutality, becomes admirable. He is ruthless but he has a sense of loyalty and justice. The problem is, that men like him cannot go back to a normal life, once the war is over. They have gone too far.

After the war has ended, they are boarding a train and sent around without really knowing where they go. They stop in Sofia for a long time and are finally sent to the Russian border to fight the Bolsheviks. The scene in which the general informs them of the Armistice is one of the greatest scenes in any war movie ever. It’s so absurd. We see the guy talk about victory and glory, while the rain is pouring down, half of the men are running away because of diarrhea and the highly decimated band plays an off-key Marseillaise and looks like a bunch of flea-infested hobos.

I really hope I could give a halfway good impression of this wonderful movie and how rich it is. It’s very witty with super fast dialogue that I hope is well captured in the subtitles. I have a French DVD so I turned them off. It’s one of the huge problems of French cinema in translation. French cinema does live to a large extent from the dialogue which is usually fast and a lot of it isn’t translated. This isn’t a comedy but it has a lot of funny elements because it shows how absurd war is and because it juxtaposes many different levels of French society and different French regions.

As I said, the movie is available with English subtitles but the only trailer I found is a French one with Spanish subtitles. It still gives a good impression of the movie.

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Lucie Aubrac (1997) A True Story of the French Resistance

I’m fascinated by Resistance stories and one of my projects is to watch at least all the French resistance movies that I can find. Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac is one of them. Like many other resistance movies it is based on a true story.

Lucie Aubrac is a quiet movie and despite some scenes of great violence, including torture, it has a gentle keynote.

At the beginning of the movie Lucie and her husband live in Lyon. He is in one of the resistance groups and, one afternoon, when they meet in the apartment of one of the members, he and his friends are arrested. If it wasn’t for his wife, who invents a cunning plan, he wouldn’t have been released so easily.

After this incident, they know, they have to move. Lyon isn’t safe anymore. They leave their apartment, get new passports and travel with their child to the South of France.

There are many different resistance cells all over France and Lucie’s husband is in the one that is in direct contact with de Gaulle. This is, of course, dangerous and it doesn’t take long and he is arrested again. Arrested and tortured, like his friends.

And that’s when the story takes off. Lucie’s love for her husband is so strong, she will do everything to get him out and save him from the firing squad. Her plan is amazing and to think that it worked amazes me even more.

This isn’t a very fast paced or dramatic movie, as I already said, it’s rather quiet and gentle. The focus is on the two main characters, Lucie (Carole Bouquet) and Raymond (Daniel Auteuil), their love and courage. The role of the nasty German is played by Heino Ferch.

If you are interested in the story of Lucie Aubrac here is the link to her book Outwitting the Gestapo.

The movie is available with English subtitles but I couldn’t find an English trailer.

La chambre des officiers aka The Officers’ Ward (2001) France, WWI and the Nightmare of Facial Mutilation

La chambre des officiers

The French movie La chambre des officiers aka The Officers’ Ward may very well be one of the most moving and shocking war movies I have ever seen. I felt sick twice, I cringed endlessly and it made me really sad. It is  a masterpiece. An absolutely brilliant anti-war movie. If you thought Born on the 4th of July was horrible then you haven’t seen this one.

The movie is based on Marc Dugain’s novel La chambre des officiers aka The officers’ ward and tells the story of the young lieutenant Adrien. At the beginning of WWI Adrien is a very handsome young officer. A piece of shrapnel rips half his jaw off. He will spend the rest of the war, a full five years, at the Val-de-Grâce Hospital in Paris. At this hospital they only cure men with facial wounds, burns etc. It is like a freak show only these are human beings.

During the beginning of the movie we never see Adrien. We only see the reaction of those around him. The doctors’, nurses’ and patients’. The profound pity in these faces says more than actually seeing him. Since he cannot talk anymore, we hear his thoughts. The moment when he realises that his face is a gaping hole is so awful…

During the five years at the hospital he fights great pain, despair, horror, suicidal thoughts. Together with the other mutilated officers they try to stay alive and become human beings again.

The music is very intense (Arvo Pärt and Wagner, admittedly the second is a bit strange) and underlines the atmosphere of this saddest of war movies. Funny enough there is also beauty. The beauty in the relationships between the wounded. And the beauty between Adrien and a very gentle and loving nurse. There is also a brothel scene towards the end that is not only lighter in tone but even in a melancholic way funny.

This is a very thought-provoking, must-see, 5/5 star movie.

I only found the French trailer, I’m sorry.