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.

1 comment:

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