This French television drama, based on a famous (and true) World War II story, should have been a momentous event in cinema. Instead, it's a slow, ponderous, surprisingly unexciting, and ultimately confusing work that stretches over three hours. Many characters weave in and out of this piece, and you start to get a little befuddled after a while. Maybe you have to know the French language (or French history of the time) to make keep track of everybody.
The people of France (older generations at least) are well acquainted with Jean Moulin, who is considered a great hero, a martyr, and a symbol of French resistance and patriotism during the dark days of the Nazi occupation. It was Moulin, through his meetings with London-based General Charles DeGaulle, who apparently pushed vigorously for a unified French resistance movement under the aegis of DeGaulle himself.
Many Americans and Brits delight in belittling the French for their role in WWII, without really considerating the events: they lived next door to the powerful Nazi war machine, and were simply overwhelmed by it. That they managed to muster such a highly effective and unbelievably courageous underground resistance network was a major (and shamefully overlooked) factor in preparing for the Normandy invasion of 1944 and the ultimate Nazi defeat. Moulin was instrumental in organizing this network, which has never really received its due credit in world history.
A big problem with this film is Francis Huster, who plays Moulin with a jaw that is rigidly and stubbornly set. He's a fine actor, but he's simply miscast. It's hard for us to accept him as a charismatic and dominant presence capable of unifying the contrary, suspicious, quasi-rebellious, stubborn leaders of the three principal resistance movements that jealously guarded their own interests. They seem determined to undermine him rather than fully cooperate with him, and, oddly, there is no clear resolution of their conflict in this film.
Moulin is able to go to London numerous times to meet with DeGaulle, an omission of credibility given the severe, Nazi-controlled travel restrictions of the times. We see very little of the obstructions that must have faced Moulin's seeming freedom to come and go to England and back several times, all without being specifically identified by the Nazis as DeGaulle's chosen leader.
There are many opportunities in this film to build intense intrigue and suspense, but it's instead treated pretty lightly, perhaps in in the cause of presenting a character study of Jean Moulin himself. As a biography it works, but as exciting cinema it doesn't.
It is also difficult to understand how the sophisticated Nazi intelligence network had such great difficulty in identifying and capturing Moulin in the relatively small southern French city of Lyon. To watch this film, you would think he was all but invisible to the enemy.
The infamous Klaus Barbie, the so-called Butcher of Lyon, is played with fervour by Christian Maria Goebel. If anything, he underplays the character. The real Barbie was apparently far more vicious and sadistic. The lovely Dutch-born, Paris-based Marushka Detmers as Moulin's only true love, and Patrick Catalifo as the renegade Frenay of the opposition Combat resistance cell, are standouts. These performances tend to bring Huster's shortcomings into clearer focus.
Considering the time and the subject matter (the resistance is committed to sabotaging the Nazis at every turn), the film is almost entirely void of action (to say nothing of badly needed tension). We are privy to only one scene of actual combat between resistance fighters and their enemies (partisan Alice, played brilliantly by Melanie Laurent with a sweet-faced determination, leads the slaughter of a group of German soldiers). Otherwise, this is a film basically about process, about procedure, about organization, which Laurent, in her zealous youthfulness, denounces ('You're just pencil-pushers,' she says to Moulin, 'you don't do anything'). It would have been fitting to see a few resistance operations against the Nazis, but, quizzically, you won't find that here.
A year before the release of this film, in 2002, the dynamic French actor Charles Berling played Jean Moulin in a docudrama. I would like to see that film to use as a comparison. Huster's Jean Moulin is a very competent (and courageous) administrator, but I would like to believe he was more overtly combative. Maybe that's the way the real Jean Moulin was. The French would certainly know more than I. In any case, this is a very important story about a true hero of France.
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