Helmer-scripter Gabriel Le Bomin’s intriguing first feature, “Fragments of Antonin,” joins a battalion of recent French films revisiting World War I. But where Francois Dupeyron’s comparatively conventional “Officers’ Ward” (2001) concerned shattered bodies, the cinematically adventurous “Fragments” explores shattered minds. In a post-WWI French hospital room full of deeply traumatized soldiers, a psychiatrist tries to decode the pantomimic signs that comprise a shell-shocked private’s makeshift language, while flashbacks flesh out the experiences he endured. Pic opens in France on Nov. 8, and its well-constructed script and imaginative lensing peg Le Bomin as a director to watch.
Dr. Labrousse’s (Aurelien Recoing, “Time Out”), disturbingly fixed smile and collection of figurine replicas of his trauma-twisted subjects sometimes make him seem crazier than his patients. He practices in an institution where soldiers’ uncontrollable shaking, catatonic states and physical deformations are dismissively diagnosed as “malingering” by fellow physicians.
The good doctor concentrates on gentle Antonin (an impressive perf by Gregori Derangere), whose zombie-like condition, characterized by trembling and five repeated names and gestures, is all the more inexplicable because of he had a non-violent job tending carrier pigeons, hardly a military activity conducive to battle fatigue.
Dr. Labrousse experiments with different stimuli (flashes, gunshots) to unlock the memories that have Antonin in their thrall, recording his patient’s reactions in little films-within-the film. What is hinted at in these black-and-white snippets of footage, and in Antonin’s disconnected robotic movements, eventually unfurls in long uninterrupted flashback sequences.
Antonin’s emotional paralysis stems not from what happened to him but from what he witnessed –other men’s deaths. Far from being swept up in enemy fire, Antonin’s experience of horror originated closer to home, in the endemic brutality of trench warfare that makes no distinction between friend and foe, as fear-filled soldiers are shot by their own officers when they fail to attack, and dog tags are matter-of-factly collected from still-conscious wounded men who are left to die.
Unlike the generally claustrophobic, dark-hued atmospherics of most Gallic reimaginings of WWI (and unlike the painterly hyperrealism of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s WWI-set “A Very Long Engagement”), Le Bomin and lenser Pierre Cottereau opt for a blue-grey, open-air look, even in the trenches, that implies a bucolic peacefulness just beyond the battlefield, emphasizing the incongruity and wrongness of the ongoing bloody slaughter.
WW I offers an uncontroversial paradigm for the problems of the “modern” world, presenting none of the nasty collaborationist issues that have haunted Gallic WW II films since Marcel Ophuls blew the whistle in “The Sorrow and the Pity.” Among the recent spate of intensely French takes on “The Great War,” the abstract therapeutic angle of “Fragments” lends a dreamlike quality somehow outside of specific time and allegiance.
Tech credits are excellent.