Thursday, February 18, 2021

Cinema Obscura: Bertrand Tavernier's "Captain Conan"

Towards the very end of Bertrand Tavernier's rambling but masterful "Captain Conan", the titular character (played with bull headed narcissism  by Phillippe Torreton), tells his sometimes adversary/mostly war buddy lawyer (Samuel Le Bihan) that the people in his small village where he's retired to "should have seen him when he was alive". 

Alive- in the mind and soul of Conan- involves his reckless bravery during World War I and the eventual French occupation along the Russian border when he and his small band of troops would run headfirst into gun fire and attack the enemy at close range, taking an almost gleeful pleasure in killing with knives and detached bayonets. The first third of the film deftly follows this in choreographed long takes up hills, around explosions, and into the shadowy depths of smoke and fire. In this role, Conan is a god.

Things shift a bit in the second part of the film when the violence is largely over and Conan and his French soldier cohorts are charged with occupying and maintaining order in Belarus. It's here that Tavernier's real motives emerge. The glorification of violence in the muddy, treaded trenches and hills of World War I turns inward and the film asks questions about masculinity and the toxic attitude that pervades during peacetime. Some of my favorite films are about this murky point in history when the war is over, occupying lines are crossed and no one seems to understand (or care) about the norms of society. Think of Christian Petzold's "Phoenix" (2014). Rosselini's "Germany, Year Zero" (1948) or Carol Reed's "The Third Man" (1949)- all films that exquisitely map the rubble existence of black marketing, self debasement and moral compromise in a world where everyone's scratching for something. Conan throws himself into this void of morality with the same ferocity he did in war, covering up for his soldiers when they commit atrocities or burying himself in alcohol. 

All of this contradicts the narrow view of law and life that Lt. Norbert (Le Bihan) is forced to deal with, whether he owes anything to the swaggering heroics of Captain Conan or not. Tavernier sets up a complex back and forth as the French soldiers grind against the accepted and its up to Norbert to see some sort of justice is meted.

Eschewing any single point of view, Tavernier (who also wrote the impressive script) directs the hell out of the film. From the opening war images to the almost hilarious shuffling of bureaucratic duties among military leadership tired of nagging relatives or superfluous documents, "Captain Conan" takes the title of one man but slowly opens up to conflate the whole experience of war. It's easy to create an anti-war film, but Tavernier does the impossible and makes a statement that war is perhaps necessary for some people and then simultaneously corrosive for the same.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Moments of the Year 2020

Inspired by the now defunct Film Comment "Moments Out of Time" series and the great Roger Ebert's year end recap, this Moments of the Year list (now in its 22nd edition) represents indelible moments of my film-going year. It can be a line of dialogue, a glance, a camera movement or a mood, but they're all wondrous examples of a filmmaker and audience connecting emotionally.



 Bill Nighy and his predilection for fire place screens in “Emma.”

A gunshot and a dog scrambling from the scene. Haunted memories and regret that plague an informer in “The Traitor”

In "The Sound of Metal", the single scene of Mathieu Almaric and Riz Ahmed in a kitchen together as a father who knows more than he says, and his silence speaks volumes as he allows a couple to reunite for the last time.

A woman (Mackenzie Davis) walking down a hallway, casting a shadow and another light shadow eerily stalking behind her.   “The Turning”

The way Fay (Sierra McCormick) says “stop smiling” twice to her friend when she asks about Everett (Jake Horowitz)    “The Vast of Night”

Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) coming backstage to meet "Tesla" (Ethan Hawke) as if she's exiting a psychotropic rave

Black water slowly recessing in a toilet to reveal….. A thing.   “Amulet”

A kitchen pot rocking itself out after being thrown to the floor during a police raid.  “Mangrove”

The desperate faces fixated on an unknowing man (James Northern) as he peels an orange and then throws the peel to the floor, causing a small scuffle from the rabid group of poverty-stricken people.  “Mr. Jones”

Wisdom from Abel Ferrara in “Sportin’ Life” when he states “old keys don’t open new doors, man.”

Willem DaFoe initially going out to chastise a homeless man yelling in the street beneath his window, and the scene that unfolds afterwards between the two men.   “Tommaso”

In “Texas Trip”, the performance of body horror by Mother Fauker.

The badly drawn Obama tattoo.  “The King of Staten Island”

When Tutar (Maria Bakalova) states she wants a nice cage like her female neighbor. Cut to a woman in a cage giving us the finger in “Subsequent Borat MovieFilm”

The way the camera slightly shakes alongside Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) as she learns to shoot a gun in “I’m You’re Woman”

A wedding reception and the alleyway into a street. Regret and time passing slowly for two different people in “The Traitor”

"His House" and the anxiety of waiting for a flip of the light switch to a netherworld of terror

A dinner scene with a group of hearing impaired people having a conversation in sign language, and then an abrupt cut to allow us to hear the innate noise caused by all the hand gestures and mouthing. Just one of the ways sound design is used brilliantly in "Sound of Metal"  

Hands connecting from opposite sides of a subway pole. "Never Rarely Sometimes Always"

In "A White White Day", the simple time lapse of a house and field over an undisclosed amount of time as weather and the passage of time take its toll.

A radio controlled car.  "Train To Busan: Peninsula"