Twenty-year-old Emma Ducharme knows she wants to be a soldier, perhaps more fervently than she knows why she wants to be a soldier. A slight, shy, reedy young woman, she enters the Canadian army with something undefined to prove to herself, and perhaps to her late father, himself a military man — but whether she proves it or not is one of many things her resting nervous face steadfastly refuses to give away.
“Wars” has its own ideas about how kindly the military treats vulnerable women like Ducharme, as she’s brusquely addressed throughout. Screenwriter Cynthia Tremblay’s ultra-sparse script has been in development since 2011, the film’s closing credits tell us, but this tightly wound character study feels aptly attuned to the #MeToo era and its reckoning with patriarchal abuse of power. There’s no obvious release or relief here, however: Ducharme’s is an untidy reckoning, as solemn and reticent as the film surrounding her.
If “Wars” feels like an impassioned breakthrough for its screenwriter, however, it’s also commandingly shaped and stamped by first-time feature director Nicolas Roy, seemingly determined not to let one frame of his finely whittled 84-minute film go to waste. Roy is best known as the regular editor of fellow Québécois filmmaker and festival fixture Denis Côté, and his debut (on which he also takes cutting duties) feels every inch an editor’s movie — frugally and elegantly pared to the barest skeleton of its script, with passages in which loaded expressions and physical gestures supplant dialogue in telling the story. Roy’s approach may be economical to a fault: A little spare character detail and breathing room around the protagonist would come at no cost to the film’s simmering power.
“Wars” requires a mighty intense young actor to carry and humanize its formal austerity, and it has one in up-and-comer Éléonore Loiselle, another Côté collaborator — recently seen in his “Social Hygiene” — who knows the value of a hard gaze. (She deservedly took the Best Actress award at Karlovy Vary, where “Wars” had its world premiere.) With wide, darting eyes and quizzical brows accentuated by a new-recruit buzzcut, she enters the film bristling with unspoken anxieties. Ducharme is stoic but not especially tough, and her cracks appear early in basic training: In one exercise, she distractedly mislays her firearm in the woods, and we share her heart-in-mouth panic as the error dawns on her.
Despite such slips, Ducharme’s commanding officer, the severe, middle-aged Sgt. Richard (David La Haye), remains uncharacteristically sympathetic to her — perhaps a little too much so. He was an admirer of her father’s, it turns out, and there’s a paternalistic undertow to his tough love. But there is something untoward in his pep talks to her, where his hand possibly lingers a little too long on her knee.
Richard’s controlled demeanor further collapses when he and Ducharme are shipped off to serve in an unspecified part of Eastern Europe — the claustrophobic combat scenes somewhat testing the film’s budget and persuasiveness — and he makes a brutal tactical error that sets him off-balance. When Ducharme attempts to reach out to him, he sexually assaults her. The attack is bluntly, uncomfortably filmed in shadow and silence, sending Ducharme and the filmmaking alike into an even nervier state of stillness. Shortly afterwards, her service is terminated: “Sgt. Richard has his reasons,” she is told, in an all too familiar assertion of authority over victimhood.
Ducharme doesn’t keep it all inside: She confides, to an extent, in a sensitive female army doctor (Fanny Malette), who attempts to persuade her to report the rape through the official channels. A support group for other female soldiers in Ducharme’s position, all of them afraid to speak out even in their safe space, is less than comforting: “If they want to rape any of us, they will,” shrugs one victim.
Ultimately, Ducharme needs to confront her trauma in her own, intimately unconventional way, cuing a final act of largely wordless, near-balletic physical performance that may not satisfy any viewers hoping for conventional catharsis — but tests the charged, taciturn expressiveness of both Loiselle’s and La Haye’s performances to an extraordinary degree. In conjunction with Philippe Roy’s precise, artfully underlit lensing, which often pulls images and expressions of startling clarity from pools of murk, their performances likewise punch through the film’s opaque minimalism. “I’ve never felt so alive,” Ducharme says at one point — an unexpected emotion for a woman in her position to claim, though this muted, rhetoric-resistant film lets its protagonist fight her own battles on her own terms.