“Officers’ Ward” is a noble, sensitive and consistently moving portrait of the so-called “smashed mugs” — French soldiers whose faces were horribly disfigured in WWI. Imbued with a certain matter-of-fact grandeur, pic is respectful, deeply French and full of almost courtly despair as the afflicted are gradually mended via early reconstructive surgery, kind nurses and intestinal fortitude. Involving, well-made costumer is a nice addition to the futility of war/triumph of the human spirit genre. Fine perfs and handsome lensing should send pic marching off to do battle in offshore arthouses.
About to board a train for the front at the start of the war, Lieutenant Adrien Fournier (Eric Caravaca) is captivated by the sight of a woman (Geraldine Pailhas) bidding a passionate farewell to a sensitive-looking man. (The fact that it is August 1914 is not indicated in titles or dialogue, which may pose an initial “getting oriented” problem for non-European viewers.)
Introducing himself as an engineer — which he thinks “smarter than being in the infantry” like her beloved — Adrien cajoles her into joining him for a drink. The drink turns into a lovely night of love-making, the memory of which will sustain him through the ordeal to come.
Having assumed his command in this war that nobody thinks will last long, Adrien and two other men have dismounted from horses in search of a suitable spot to build a bridge, when a shell comes whistling in and explodes at their feet in an otherwise calm field. Early on, the wounded are established as so much stinking gooey meat. For the next half hour or so of screen time, as Adrien is transported back to and installed at the military hospital in Paris, his shattered face is kept from view, with only the comments and reactions of others to convey the damage. Although his limbs and torso are fine, one gathers that his face was ripped apart like a melon, his jaw and most of his teeth nearly obliterated and his throat slashed open like a zipper. Mud clogging crucial arteries saved him from bleeding to death. He can’t form speech and his gurgling utterances sound like a dying dolphin.
Before Adrien’s mouth is sufficiently rebuilt, his frequently panicky inner thoughts are heard as voiceover (a device reminiscent of the similarly themed “Johnny Got His Gun”) and he communicates with others via a small chalkboard. In addition to his fellow officers — Pierre (Gregori Derangere), a dashing Jewish pilot who needs a nose graft and Henri (Denis Podalydes), a religious aristocrat from Brittany — who are allotted their own spacious ward while seriously wounded enlisted men suffer in tighter quarters below, Adrien’s interactions are limited to his best friend from college, artistically inclined Alain (Jean-Michel Portal), the facility’s reassuring and confident surgeon (Andre Dussollier) and a stunningly compassionate nurse (Sabine Azema) who always says just the right thing to boost morale. , such as “You can’t have a mirror yet — if it was that bad I wouldn’t be able to look at you” and “I can see your entire soul in your eyes.”
Having unwrapped his gauze to confront his reflection in a window, Adrien fibs in letters to his family, claiming he’s fine except for a broken collarbone. By the time we see him (after several preliminary surgeries), his face is scrambled but not nearly as hideous as, say, Gary Oldman’s character in “Hannibal” or, indeed, Lon Chaney in “Phantom of the Opera.” Shown head-on only fleetingly as needed, chewed up flesh is mostly kept in shadow.
After Adrien has been on the ward for 20 months, he and his fellow patients discover a lone disfigured woman on the floor above, the still-striking Marguerite (Isabelle Renauld), the only survivor of an attack on the surgical tent where she was serving as a nurse.
In his fifth feature, Dupeyron exercises rigor and sensitivity, creating an aura of incremental bravery and recovery that transpires primarily in the title locale. Pic consistently sidesteps the potential for sluggishness, as it navigates between instances of compassion and cruelty. When Adrien is released after four and a half years, the struggle to make a life as a disfigured man in post-war Paris begins with surprising results.
Earth tones with pale greens and yellows dominate pic’s thoughtfully muted palette in Tetsuo Nagat’s beautifully lit widescreen lensing. Score is well-suited to the proceedings.