|Index||9 reviews in total|
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
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
real life) with barely a face showing to indicate who's talking to who!
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
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.
It took a second viewing for me to really 'get' Bertrand Tavernier's
'Capitaine Conan,' which I found very underimpressive the first time
(not helped by the fact Kino Video's transfer is in the wrong ratio -
1.85:1 instead of 2.35:1). With lowered expectations, I was actually
surprisingly impressed second time around.
It's not one of the great Great War pictures, but it is an interesting attempt to address the problem of what happens to the warriors who find themselves at their most alive during war when the war is taken away from them? Only the first half hour deals with the war, the rest of the film set in the uncertain period between the Armistice and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles as Conan (Phillipe Torreton) and his men are shipped across Eastern Europe before ending up fighting the forgotten war of 1919 in Russia. With no enemy, his trained thugs turn on the civilian population or each other, while Conan finds himself at odds with one of his few friends among the conscripted officers (Samuel le Bihain) who becomes involved in courts martial, first as defense then as prosecutor.
The staging is impressive, with Tavernier's long but often far from static takes capturing the mood of weary restlessness well without drawing undue attention to themselves. Part of the problem is that it's an aimless film, perfectly capturing the limbo of the period when most soldiers just wanted to go home while a few just wanted someone else to fight. As a result the narrative line is weak and on first viewing it can be hard to see exactly where its going: when Tavernier introduces a widow looking for her lost son you're suddenly wondering if it's going to turn into 'Life and Nothing But 2.' But while not immediately accessible, the film does ultimately reward a second viewing and left me wondering why I thought so little of it first time round.
Sadly, Kino's DVD release is very disappointing. Although shot in Super 35, the film was intended to be seen in 2.35:1 but here gets a soft 1.85:1 transfer. There is one good extra, an excellent 54-minute making of documentary by Tavernier Jr. that is quite candid and revealing, but it pales into significance compared to the Region 2 French 2-disc set, which includes a beautiful 2.35:1 transfer (with English subtitles), the documentary, audio commentary, deleted scenes, interviews with filmmakers and historians, stills gallery and trailer.
This is in many ways a very good war film but not in the typical way. The film opens in the closing days of WW1 on the Eastern Front where Capitaine Conan (Philippe Torreton in a Cesar winning performance) leads a band of ruthless hand to hand fighters, equivalent to a modern special forces unit. They prove themselves far more effective than the regular army in the final defeat and are envied by many including a friend of Conan, Lt Norbet (Samuel Le Bihan, IIRC was nominated for a Cesar in this). But when the armistice is signed Conan and his men find themselves in limbo while Norbert, working for the Court Martials finds himself accusing the very men he admired for robbery and murder. This film does take a while to get going but it is worth it, giving time for the characters to develop and also establishing the monotony the soldiers find, going from combat to walking the streets of Bucharest. The film also deals with the beginnings of the Russian Civil War and the problem of soldiers fighting with no motivation. Tavernier's direction is superb and visually the film equals a number of classic war films while the performances help to give it an edge as it goes into territory that Hollywood war film's in particular have tended not to go into.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Captain Conan (Capitaine Conan)' ***1/2. (1996, France, Not Rated, 129
Directed Bertrand Tavernier with Philippe Torreton, Samuel Lebihan, Bernard
Le Coq). History on the cusp of any war is most often overlooked. How many
of us have or take the opportunity to study or learn about the United
during the 1760s or 1870s? When did you last read about Europe in 1900,
1920, 1932 or 1946? `Capitaine Conan' is a movie about men on the cusp, at
the end of World War I. For this alone, `Capitaine Conan' is a movie worth
seeing. For more than a year after the Armistice, over 100,000 French
troops fought in Eastern Europe.
`Capitaine Conan' opens on the battlefront in Bulgaria. Conan (Torreton) is the leader of a guerrilla troop that fights behind enemy lines. They live off the land, fighting where the rules of engagement are brutally one on one. Conan tells his friend Norbett (Lebihan) ` 3000 men like me won the war. Anyone can kill at a distance, but only a few learn to kill with the knife, eye to eye. It took all the millions of soldiers like you to fight the war, but it took the few like myself to win it.' But when the Armistice is announced Conan's men are thrust back into the civilized world, a world of army regulations, boredom, and restrictions. Conan's guerrillas aren't easily tamed. There's a robbery and murder at the nightclub. Conan's men are the primary suspects. But before there is any resolution in the military court, the French troops are called to fight the Bolsheviks on the border of the newly formed Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks attack the French and Conan leads his men into the battle. As the scene fades they are running into the reeds and rushes of a huge river delta.
The movie ends with Conan and Norbett meeting some years later. Conan is dying. Their discussion is unsettling and doesn't resolve any of the unanswered questions about how the war ended. I've watched the movie twice and the ending still seems out of place. But then maybe wars and history don't end. Maybe history is a continuum and life on the cusp between events is more difficult to define and understand than the events themselves. Maybe this is why most history is about events and less so about the life and lives around the events.
If you're put of by the thought that `Capitaine Conan' is nothing more than a history lesson, be not afraid. The acting, direction, and photography are very well done. One of the most interesting features of this production is the hand held camera work during the battle scenes. The camera moves through the battle like another pair of eyes often distracted by an explosion, an obstruction or a scream. The camera flinches as it makes its way though the mud and the muck of the battle. The staging of a battle in the hills of Bulgaria is up to the standards of the battle scenes in `Patton.'
`Capitaine Conan' is a very good movie, one of the best of 1996. It's out on video, I recommend you see it.
Historically speaking, this is a very interesting film, as very few
films have dealt with what occurred between the Armistace in November
1918 and when the troops were ultimately brought home--some as late as
1920 or 1921. During this period, an undeclared and practically
forgotten war raged off and on between soldiers from several nations
and the Red Army along the Russian borders. Apparently, France, the
United States, Germany and several other nations were worried that the
Russian Revolution might spill into other nations and so troops were
sent to eastern Europe. Not a whole lot was gained from this, though it
did help to keep some of the problems from spreading somewhat. The
problem is that while I am familiar about this period, I wonder just
how many non-history teachers know about this. While the film does give
us some information about this, it's a shame it wasn't more clear and
exactly why the troops were sent into Bulgaria and Romania and who they
were fighting wasn't really discussed. Perhaps the writers and director
wanted this confusion in the film in order to mirror the confusion of
the troops, as they seemed to have no idea why they were there
either--but still, more information would have been nice.
Despite the setting for the film being this undeclared war, the theme running through the film was the extreme difficulty some soldiers had adjusting to peace. Captain Conan and his group of irregulars were savage guerrilla fighters and could not adapt to a post-WWI world. This all came to a head when some of Conan's men were accused of committing crimes against the Romanians as well as when Conan was drug into resulting trials for these accused soldiers as well as a deserter. This is where the film became more interesting and I started to enjoy the film after a very slow start. Once again, the film was important because rarely is this transition to "normalcy" addressed in war films.
So do I recommend the film? Well, it really depends on your tolerance for a slow film (in the beginning) as well as your ability to follow the script--after all, if you don't have at least a basic knowledge of this period, you might feel a bit lost.
This film is about how the military experience can transform a person, and
no, it's not about the army making men out of boys.
Conan leads a group of trench cleaners, who, in reality, were thugs and pathological killers who enjoyed butchering their enemies after infiltrating their lines at night.
Problems emerge when the war is over, but some of these men cannot deal with their wartime homicidal pathologies and keep doing what they were trained for and mount a heist which results in killings.
Conan then has to choose between his camaraderie for his men and his responsibilities as an army officer.
This film has many originalities, especially in its war scenes and, I must admit, the whole thing is entertaining.
It's lengthy at times, but Torreton gives a great performance and really deserved the Cesar for best leading role that he got that year.
It is, in my knowledge, the only film which treats of that very particular post-World War I episode, when the "Reds" tried to invade Bulgaria and the French came to stop the expansion of what was not yet know as the Soviet block.
This movie left me severely impressed. Most war films, particularly those intended to be viewed as a deep form of art tend to be much more shallow (Perhaps it has something to do with a lack of first hand military experience among film makers in the US.) Often the writers and directors are simply trying to support an anti war thesis by illustrating suffering, injustice and cruelty. But anyone can illustrate suffering, injustice and cruelty in a generic way and then squeeze it into an ill fitting war context. What impressed me about Bertrand's work is that he didn't do this. There were no shallow caricatures and he did not spoon feed the audience with anti war propaganda. Bertrand instead, tried to paint an accurate picture of some very complicated events and circumstances, and the equally complicated people who are trying to deal with them. The suffering, injustice and cruelty are there, but the audience must find these elements for themselves.
Conan and his men call their own shots on the battlefield and create fear within the enemy with their surprise attacks. By 1918, the mother of all wars comes to an end on the Bulgarian border. By this stage the men have had the taste of blood and cannot seem to settle down. When they are transferred to Romania for a bit of rest and recreation, a new battle commences with each other. The rules of combat have altered for the sake of peace and hypocrisy runs rampart to the disgust of Conan. At times, the style falls into dark humour territory, producing bizarre moments on the battlefield and words of wisdom on the human condition at war.
I saw this film for two reasons - one is Bertrand Tavernier, the other
is the fact that much of the action of the film takes place in my
country of birth Romania. I was disappointed.
The historical background of the story takes place in the last couple of months of the first world war and in the year that followed. The heroes are two French officers, one of them is the commander of a special unit which turns the fate of battles on the war fields with brutality and efficiency, but cannot find its place when the war ends. The soldiers are part of an unfortunate minority of the French army which remained conscripted in the area, which was undergoing political changes - empires fell down, new nations where raising and forming their national states, borders where moving and still fought, and revolutions were threatening the order sought by the victorious powers.
Unfortunately nothing of the changes around are reflected in any way by the film, which focuses on the fate of the French soldiers and officers and not only misses completely the events around but also presents the local people in an folklorist and non flattering manner. Neither does the film say anything new that was not already said in the great films about the absurdity of war in general or the cruelty of WWI in particular. The story is composed of several sequences not too well related, acting is good but cannot save the day, and seeing this film is overall an experience to forget for these who saw it and to avoid for these who did not see it.
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