In “Marthe,” humanist helmer Jean-Loup Hubert (best known for “Le Grand Chemin”) expresses his disgust at the Great War’s wastefulness, and in the process delivers an overlong examination of passion between a provincial schoolmarm and a convalescing doughboy. Although top-notch in production values, film suffers from a paucity of narrative invention and a ponderous pace that will spell trouble among younger audiences at home and abroad. Pic’s visual panache, especially its arresting battle sequences, should nonetheless win it some attention among Euro distribs and ensure it a long life on quality tube.
Although Hubert’s script none too subtly touches on such big subjects as the sacrifice of the young, the arbitrariness of suffering, the injustice of colonialism, and of course, the subversive nature of love, it is the brief depictions of battle for which this film will be remembered. Lenser Jean-Marie Dreujou and camera operator Kevin Jewison (son of Canadian helmer Norman) open with an interminably long tracking shot down a French trench under artillery bombardment and concludes with a subjective POV through a gas-mask as the hero is bayoneted.
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.