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East of France, December 1917. In a village situated close to the front but protected from it by a hillside, the body of Belle de Jour, a little girl, is found by the canal. Judge Mierck, assisted by an Colonel Matzev representing the Armed Forces, investigates the case in his own way. The fact that the young victim's corpse lies a few yards from the manor of Destinat, the withdrawn, haughty-looking district attorney, who has always despised and humiliated him, doesn't escape him. To make matters worse, a witness has seen the magistrate not only talking with Belle but patting her cheek as well minutes before the little girl was strangled. But vengeance is one thing and class privilege another... Written by
Grey Souls/Les Âmes grises is above all the product of a fevered imagination. It's like a super-downbeat version of some glossy TV historical miniseries such as one gets under the Masterpiece Theater imprimatur. This one of course is French, and based on a novel of the same name by Philippe Claudel about the strangely tormented inhabitants of a town in 1917 separated by a range of hills from the trench warfare of World War I but within earshot of the artillery fire.
The story, which director Yves Angelo has evoked with a certain brilliance, suggests the proposition that people on the edge of war go morally putrid though the main character, the wealthy, aging, brooding Prosecutor Pierre-Ange Destinat (a hypnotically powerful Jean-Pierre Marielle) may have dried up and turned strange and warped as long as forty-odd years ago, when his pretty young wife was found floating face down in a nearby stream.
In the opening sequence a pre-pubescent girl called "Belle de jour" (Josépine Zapy) has just been found in the same location and is laid out ashen and cold on the misty ground. The repulsive local Judge Mierck (a compulsively watchable Jacques Villeret) is on the scene, and dominates it. He tends to act gleefully menacing and has the habit of gourmandising in the middle of his investigations, giving new meaning to the term, "chewing up the scenery." There's no love lost between the oily, sadistic Mierck and the austere Prosecutor, though later Mierck does something he thinks is saving the Prosecutor's skin. He gets no thanks for it.
Next we see the local school teacher go definitively nuts in his classroom, dressing his youngsters in gas masks and having them sing the ferocious verses of the Marseillaise while he strips, throws boots and clothes across the room, and urinates on the blackboard. This is our first in-your-face warning that war's a dangerous infection that may have its worst effects on those who've not been sent to the front.
The teacher's replacement is a beautiful young woman, Lysia Verhareine (Marina Hands). The loco prof has trashed his room shockingly, so she's lodged in a cottage on the property of the Prosecutor's "chateau." She spends every spare moment pining for her beloved, with whom she exchanges letters to and from the front that she lovingly copies into a red notebook. The Prosecutor, who identifies her with his lost love, intercepts and reads the letters; they suit his own twisted broodings. When an official missive comes with news of the lover's death he holds it for several weeks. Lysia is found dead in mysterious circumstances shortly after the Prosecutor has finally released the letter to her.
The rest of the film skillfully teases us over the question of whether the Prosecutor killed the lady schoolteadcher and the girl, and perhaps his long-dead wife -- who all three happen to resemble each other. These are mysteries that are never solved. The Prosecutor is the number one grey soul: he has a nobility about him, but seems capable of profoundly evil acts.
We're further "entertained" by watching as Judge Mierck, accompanied by a Russian-looking colonel, gleefully subjects two captured deserters to torments worthy of Abu Ghraib; and by observing the fate of a deputy policeman (Denis Podalydès). His wife dies in childbirth, probably because the road was blocked by soldiers when she went into labor and he was cut of from her.
Almost everyone in Grey Souls is suicidal or homicidal or, if they lack the energy for that, just angry and vindictive. To say the way this town is depicted represents a Hobbesian view of humanity would be a bit of an understatement. "Grey" may mean they can go either way, and are not clearly either good or bad. That doesn't seem to fit Judge Mieck, and "grey" also just means mournful. There is no bright happy soul in this film and watching it isn't a fun thing, though one can't deny it's riveting and well made. Some of the wintry landscapes also have a greyness that's beautiful and unique.
Audience members at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema screening, mostly well over forty, were well pleased with Angelo's work and found it profound, eagerly discussing with the director himself the issues they felt it brings up the main ones presumably being the very fundamental and dark questions as to whether humans are worth not exterminating and life is worth not ending. Grey Souls is very well done, if not without longeurs, but to me it seemed far too contrived and over-the-top -- far more a high-toned sort of horror movie or a novelist's playful smelling-of-the-lamp mental construct to think of as a serious and universal philosophical examination of morality and war.
Even the audience laughed when it learned of the Judge's painful off-screen demise, which smelled a great deal too much of poetic justice.
Les Âmes grises has the downbeat French equivalent of a Hollywood ending: the deputy policeman does not kill his dead wife's baby. That part of the book Monsieur Angelo leaves out. And a celebration in voice-over of the baby's innocence is as upbeat as the movie gets.
(Shown during the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Cener March 2006, Les Âmes grises opened in Paris September 28, 2005.)
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