Fort Saganne, which has checked in as one of France’s most expensive films at a cost upwards of $6 million, is something of a throwback to the 1920s and ’30s colonial sagas that thrived on local screens. Alain Corneau’s film of Louis Gardel’s prize-winning 1980 novel about an empire builder in the Sahara in the early years of the century, based on the real-life exploits of the author’s grandfather, is often fine in its large-scale reconstruction of a time and place and a mentality, but falters in its attempts to inscribe well-detailed characters in its wide-screen canvas.
Charles Saganne is an aspiring young military officer of peasant stock who achieves quasi-legendary glory during the French penetration of the Sahara between 1910 and 1914. Gerard Depardieu, who cuts a smashing figure in desert military garb, perched on a camel, followed by a column of faithful, taciturn Arab warriors, brings all his talent and presence to the role, but the immediacy of the personage is only intermittently felt. Costar Philippe Noiret is full-bloodedly excellent as the ambitious colonel seeking general’s stars with his advocacy of aggressive military action in the Sahara.
Film is weakest in describing Depardieu’s romantic relationships. His brief but intense affair with special guest star Catherine Deneuve, as a journalist who maneuvers him into bed provocatively, lacks fire and poignancy. And young Sophie Marceau gets insufficient screen time to make any impression as the young bourgeois girl who pines for Depardieu and later becomes his wife, then widow.
Without being an anachronistic apology of France’s imperialistic past, or a revisionist chronicle, pic does admirably revive some of the epic sweep and romanticism of the old French sagas.