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Bulgaria near the end of World War I: Conan, warrior and wolf, leads a band of 50 ruthless French fighters who love hand-to-hand combat. Their motto: "We forgot to take prisoners, Captain." At war's end, the unit goes to Bucharest, where Conan tries to keep them out of trouble, defends them when they behave as warriors, and finds he's unsuited for peacetime. His friendship with Norbert, a teacher turned lieutenant, is tested when Norbert accepts a job as court-martial prosecutor because he's learned that Conan will be facing charges and he wants to protect his friend. When they are sent to the Russian border to fight Bolsheviks, Conan is back in his element and Norbert is off the hook. Written by
The Best film of the '90s, hands down; Tavernier ROCKS!
Tavernier is probably the greatest film artist working in the world today. With Capitaine Conan, he accomplished what all the New-Wave directors dreamed about but never quite got the chance to do (except maybe for Bertolucci on The Last Emperor, if you want to consider him part of the original new-wave): to make a high-budget film with thousands of extras and elaborate, detailed sets which completely conforms to their vision and stays uncompromised, an auteurist epic. Well, how's this for uncompromised: Most of the shots in this film are made using only available light or the light that would be available given the circumstances of the scene! As a result, the film looks uniquely dark and authentic, as if it was shot in 1918 when the events took place. This takes some getting used to, and of course, people conditioned to being spoon fed every scene lit up like a christmas tree will be disoriented, but the shadowy effects achieved far outweigh the negatives. Some of the shots are kept in total darkness (as they would be in real life) with barely a face showing to indicate who's talking to who! Then the people gradually come out of the darkness into different shades of light, each more nuanced than the other. The cinematography and art direction are breathtaking; there isn't a single shot in the entire film that couldn't be called a masterpiece of its own, perfectly framed, perfectly composed and perfectly moved. Tavernier rarely uses a shot-reverse-shot preferring complex camera movement or long uninterrupted takes capturing the scenes from different angles without a cut. The scenes themselves, however, don't drag on forever, they are compact and to the point, making a Tavernier film usually one where a lot of things happen very fast and in order to pick up all the details and nuances, many viewings are essential. The acting from the awesome leads of Thoreton (a richly deserved Cesar award for best actor), Le Bihan, and Le Coque, down to the smallest bit player is uniformly brilliant. No American film I've ever seen has acting on this high a naturalistic level.
The film is mainly about the thin and precariously balanced area called 'amorality' that some people have a knack for staying within, racking up only enough whites (good deeds) and blacks (bad deeds)to stay mostly in the perfectly shaded middle gray. In a war-time situation the people who have this knack tend to do very well for themselves. Conan, a tough special forces officer whose group makes sneak attacks on the enemy and kills at knife-point, is that perfect 'amoral' character or for lack of a better term people have come to call an 'anti-hero', i.e., that guy who sometimes does 'bad' or 'evil' things, but integrates this within a higher integrity that's essentialy 'good' and admirable. His friend, Lt. Norbert is the more traditionally 'moral' man who comes to admire the guts it takes for Conan to operate rather openly in that precarious zone against all the hypocrisies of his superiors (which keep them protected). When Conan comes to defend a few of his men who have clearly gone over the line and committed atrocities which must be punished, Norbert, given the job of prosecuting the men, makes his position clear and breaks with him. All through the film he tries to become more like Conan and yet stays wary of the line that Conan could easily cross into madness and fanaticism. What draws Conan and Norbert together is their common integrity against the hypocrisies of society, as opposed to Lt. DeSceve, the other main character, who's an honorable soldier and strong man, but who kisses-up to the top brass and has a fascist attitude.
This film never got the distribution it should have in the U.S. simply because it was a subtitled foreign film and Americans have practically stopped watching foreign films! What a damn shame! They missed the greatest film of the '90s! I would conjecture that not 1 out of a 100 people who've seen Spielberg's melodramatic "Saving Private Ryan" have even heard of "Capitaine Conan." Catch it on the Sundance channel on cable or rent it on video and experience a true masterpiece. Then watch it again and again and experience deja-vu.
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