A lumbering, unmoored soaper of fraternal conflict and romantic healing in the trauma-ridden aftermath of the First World War, “Ceasefire” has all the hallmarks of having been infelicitously adapted from a longer, richer, more discursive epic novel: key character arcs seem unduly stymied, multiple timelines are hastily braided, and observations that might look poetic on the page turn purple on the actors’ tongues. So it’s something of a surprise, as the credits roll on screenwriter Emmanuel Courcol’s first feature as director, to learn that this cluttered, continent-hopping kinda-epic is his original creation. Either way, it’s a story that feels incompletely told, the most intriguing potential narratives of which play out peripherally to the damaged hero’s less compelling personal crisis.
At least, as played by an unusually starchy Romain Duris, he cuts a visually resplendent figure, dashingly bearded and attired in rakish, rumpled linen tailoring. Such decorative surface detailing represents the chief pleasure of “Ceasefire,” which is shot in classically honeyed fashion by Clint Eastwood’s favored d.p. Tom Stern; mostly looking the part of an old-school period wallow, it’d make glossy background viewing to a Sunday afternoon of quality time with the couch. Theatrically, it’s a less tempting proposition, though Duris’ name and ongoing public interest in the WWI centenary will ensure a measure of international distribution. Still, compared to other recent cinematic studies of the Great War’s legacy, notably James Kent’s U.K.-focused “Testament of Youth,” this is less stirring fare.
Courcol opens proceedings with a literal plunge into the hell of battle, as Stern’s camera drops from a lofty aerial establishing shot into the frenzied trenches at Argonne, where commander Georges Laffont (Duris) weathers a hailstorm of bullets, shrapnel and flying body parts. This suitably ugly pre-credit sequence is executed with some muscle, only for the tone to shift disorientingly as we cut to the sunlit, clean-scrubbed calm of Nantes in 1923. Living with his elderly mother (Maryvonne Schiltz), doleful, moon-faced war veteran Marcel (Grégory Gadebois) has apparently been struck deaf and dumb since his time in the trenches, but is tentatively drawn out of his shell by the kindly attentions of sign language therapist Hélène (Céline Sallette) and mousy war widow Madeleine (Julie-Marie Parmentier).
As the narrative skips forward yet again, catching up with Georges — now shaggy-haired and tanned the shade of Clark Gable in “Mogambo” — in the former Upper Volta colony of French West Africa, viewers could be forgiven for wondering how these seemingly disparate strands correlate. As it turns out, Marcel and Georges are brothers, albeit a mere fraction more plausibly so than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in “Twins”; a third military son, meanwhile, has been MIA for years. Pinched by a guilt-ridden sense of duty to his devastated family, and weary of trading goods with (somewhat heavily exoticized) African tribespeople, Georges returns to Nantes.
In case the helpful prognosis of a tribal witch doctor — “I sense anger in you, dark shadows fighting in your heart” — hasn’t sufficiently clued us in, Georges’ worldly exterior just barely masks his own deeply embedded PTSD when he comes home. Struggling to empathize with his brother’s less concealed trauma, he initiates a guarded romance with Hélène, argues with his mother about fraternal responsibility, and generally slouches about the countryside in covetable jazz-age leisurewear — costume designers Edith Vesperini and Stéphan Rollot can take a deserved bow. But Courcol’s wandering, flashback-strewn script lends little shape or tension to its egotistic protagonist’s inner turmoil — the stakes of which appear lower and less compelling than Marcel’s frustrated, inarticulate struggle to re-enter civilian life, though the film frequently sidelines him as brusquely as his brother does. Sallette and Parmentier, in particular, draw what pathos they can from roles that remain underwritten to the last, even as the film calls out Georges’ haughty assumption that war is principally a man’s tragedy.
Often a supple, playful performer in contemporary surrounds, Duris looks hemmed in by “Ceasefire’s” polite heritage aesthetic: He can’t do much to enliven or defrost this tough-talking poseur of a character, beyond striking the requisite poses with burly aplomb. “It was impossible to come back whole,” Marcel eventually writes of the human cost of war, which might well be true — though that’s no excuse for this attractive, hollow diversion to write its characters by halves.