Similar inventiveness shows up later as our boy returns to the front, takes shelter in the chiaroscuro hell of the fortress of Verdun, then marches from green fields toward the digitalized moonscape of no-man’s-land for another futile attack. Sandwiched between this bravura lensing unfortunately, is the greater part of the pic, which is a failed tear-jerker about love and loss in a dreary seaside sanitarium town.
When lanky and lucky Simon (Guillaume Depardieu) is bayoneted but not seriously wounded in battle, he lands up in Brittany along with other injured comrades, notably a sensitive North African (Kader Boukhaneff) and a gruff one-legged veteran (Gerard Jugnot). A chance encounter on the beach with Marthe (Clotilde Courau), a soulful schoolmistress engaged to an absent soldier, sends Simon into transports of love as his bandaged friends look on in amusement. Marthe, who lives in the household of the saintly doctor-commander (Bernard Giraudeau) of the vets’ hospital, is not long in reciprocating Simon’s ardor.
As the gangly, intellectual Simon, Depardieu delivers an awkward, if eventually winning, perf that unfortunately never meshes with Courau’s earthy and artsy Marthe. Far more surprising is Jugnot, a whining nebbish in dozens of broad Gallic screen comedies: Here he gives a touching and utterly convincing portrayal of a doomed amputee determined to return to his life of whoring and drinking. Giraudeau, the commanding officer, delivers a nice perf as the conscience-stricken representative of an older generation.
Frederic Duru’s production design, particularly in the behind-the-lines encampments of shell-shocked soldiers, is a superb series of tableaux vivants. It is a shame that such a praiseworthy visual package should be squandered in the service of what, when the guns are stilled, concludes as a trite emotional melodrama.