Returning to the First World War focus of “Life and Nothing But,” Bertrand Tavernier’s “Captain Conan” is arguably his best film in several years. A forgotten chapter of Gallic military experience in the Balkans provides the French humanist helmer with the occasion for a melancholy reflection on war and its consequences that demands great patience and thought from its audience but repays the commitment with real emotional rewards. This resonant moral drama may be too subtle in its approach for broad arthouse success, but it should.
Like “Life,” which Tavernier also co-wrote with Jean Cosmos, “Conan” is a pacifist statement that shrewdly avoids the aggressive rhetoric of the war-as-horror school. Both films instead scrutinize character and personal repercussions by way of historical episodes now considered embarrassing blights on French military glory. In the 1989 film, it was the bureaucratic meddling that hindered postwar efforts to identify the dead; this time the subject is a French army faction that continued killing for nine months after the war had ended.
Pic’s narrative shape at first appears unwieldy. The story unfolds as four distinct acts with a coda, and, while act one seems formless and impressionistic , delaying access to central questions, its purpose gradually becomes clear. Inevitably evoking the recent Balkans conflict, the film opens on the Bulgarian border in 1918 during the final clashes of the Great War. The title character (Philippe Torreton) comes loosely into view as a fearless combat leader who sees himself more as a warrior, charging onto bloody battlefields or into the beds of local women with the same impulsiveness. With little regard for his career-officer superiors or their methods, Conan reserves his respect for his men and his educated friend Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan).
Tavernier enters into the many battle scenes with a spirit akin to Conan’s, avoiding buildup and winddown to show concentrated combat. These are presented with low-impact violence that seems to belong to another era of filmmaking, but are masterfully shot in a contemporary style, with a single, hand-held camera darting into the fray.
Story then shifts into a more lucid mode as the armistice is declared in France, with Tavernier’s disdain for military pomp amusingly rendered as soldiers suffer through an assembly clutching their stomachs with dysentery pains. The troops stationed in the Balkans are not demobilized, however, and Conan’s men become unruly while awaiting further orders in Bucharest. Norbert is appointed a military legal representative, and his integrity in dealing with the misdemeanors of Conan and his men causes a rift between the two friends.
The tone shifts again in the third section to examine the ethics of war. While guarded with each other, Norbert and Conan are reunited in defense of a soldier, Jean Erlane (PierreVal), due to be executed for desertion. Final act returns to the front, where Conan and his men continue fighting even as the Russian army retreats. A postwar postscript effectively shows the ravages of conflict and the falseness of heroism.
Until now seen only in relatively minor film roles (including Tavernier’s “L. 627” and “The Bait”), Torreton proves a commanding, potent performer, making Conan a headstrong, tough creature of war operating by his own outlaw moral code but with enough of the right convictions to make him interestingly discordant. Playing almost the flipside of the same man, Le Bihan is similarly impressive as Norbert. Both actors come from France’s prestigious Comedie Francaise.
Their characters’ scorn for the military establishment finds a worthy focus in veteran Claude Rich’s imbecilic general, continually obsessing about such trivia as mealtime punctuality and the day’s menu rather than concerning himself with the soldiers’ welfare. Equally strong are Bernard Le Coq as an unbending, highborn lieutenant and Catherine Rich as Erlane’s desperate mother.
Strong technical contributions come from lenser Alain Choquart’s arresting visuals, employing distinct styles on and off the battlefields, as well as from Guy-Claude Francois’ rich production design and Oswald D’Andrea’s score, at times combined with hauntingly frail vocals.