The War in the Highlands,” a widescreen period parable about the tragic divisiveness of armed conflict, lacks the dramatic heat or breathtaking vistas necessary to break out beyond territories familiar with the historical period against which the tale unfolds. Too big for the tube but too restrained to attract epic-minded audiences, specialized film — making its international bow in the Berlin competition after being submitted as the Swiss entry in the foreign-language Oscar sweepstakes — seems destined for like-minded festivals in search of unfamiliar yet undeniably prestigious fare.
By February of 1798, Napoleon’s troops are on the verge of taking Berne. Returning to his remote, loyalist village after being a mercenary in the French army, Pierre Ansermoz (Antoine Basler) has an instant influence on young postman David Aviolat (Yann Tregouet), who on his rounds between the upper and lower villages in the valley has already developed a more liberal view of the impending Enlightenment than his strict and dour widowed father, Josias (Francois Marthouret). Complicating matters is David’s burgeoning romance with Julie Bonzon (Marion Cotillard), whose father, Jacques, is also receptive to the new ideas.
Over a period of six days, sides are drawn within the town, as loyalist feelings against Ansermoz (who continues to wear his tattered French uniform) grow increasingly hostile, the star-crossed couple consummate their love in his dead mother’s abandoned chalet, and the young lovers plead with their respective elders for understanding and support. Ansermoz finally persuades David to come to the valley and enlist with the French army, while Josias leads a band of villagers to head them off at a mountain pass.
Based on a 1915 novel by Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, widescreen pic looks and sounds terrific. But enough of the action leading up to the dramatic showdown is filmed indoors to give the movie an oddly claustrophobic feel for one filmed largely on location. And the largish cast (including vet Laurent Terzieff as a local doomsayer) seems to strain under Swiss helmer Francis Reusser’s muted direction.
Still, the final showdown on the mountainside is a stunner, with the tragic vanity of the French forces exploited by the resolute villagers in a fusillade of bullets in the snowy expanse. In a final puzzler, the tragic aftermath of the long-anticipated skirmish between father and son occurs in part offscreen, and not even the upbeat coda (modified from the book’s dark finish) can dissipate the gloom.