Friday October 10, 1997
Bertrand Tavernier's superb "Capitaine Conan" takes us into the Balkans as World War I ends for a subtle and resonant study of friendship, politics and class differences as the men who helped win the war for France are exploited for covert warfare long past the Armistice.
When World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918, French troops had been engaged in a bloody struggle with the Bulgarians. They were eager to be demobilized yet were still fighting there intermittently seven months later. They remained because France and its allies were concerned about Bulgaria's territorial ambitions. France's lagging also positioned its men for further combat with the advancing Red Army.
This is just a portion of the complex and conflicting national interests and allegiances at play that made the Balkans such a volatile region then and now.
It is against this background that "Capitaine Conan" unfolds. It was adapted by Tavernier and veteran screenwriter Jean Cosmos from Roger Vercel's 1934 autobiographical novel.
Tavernier is France's master storyteller in the grand tradition. For more than 20 years he has proved that a classic screen narrative that grapples with themes and issues as well as character and destiny remains vital. As a result, he has emerged as one of the world's great contemporary filmmakers, as much at ease with the broad canvas as the intimate sketch. Many of his films are marked by an interplay of shifting scale, none more than "Capitaine Conan."
Tavernier devotes his first half-hour to warfare to convey vividly not only just what a dirty, brutal business it is but also what kind of fearless and cagey men it takes to fight it successfully.
None are better in battle than Capitaine Conan (Philippe Torreton). He is a shrewd working-class man, fully aware that it is men like him--the men who fought hand-to-hand combat--who won the war for France. Once past the Armistice and moved into Bucharest and later Sofia, Capitaine Conan and especially the men he commands find it difficult to remain mobilized while ordered not to fight as France commences engaging in what it euphemistically calls "the theater of external--or expeditionary--operation."
Post-Armistice Bucharest is a glittery, dangerous wide-open town. In an elaborate old palatial structure, the French military is beginning to conduct courts-martial of some of its bravest soldiers for the most petty infractions; upstairs in the same building is a luxe brothel only officers could afford. In this way, the French ruling classes are reasserting themselves over the very men who saved their nation.
One of the few officers Conan actually respects, Lt. Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan), has been assigned to the tribunal to defend the accused soldiers. Their friendship becomes severely strained when two of Conan's men rob a nightclub, leaving two women dead. But as circumstances shift again, in Sofia, Conan and Norbert once again join forces to try to save the life of a hapless 20-year-old aristocrat who is facing death for a desertion he claimed he did not commit.
Tavernier has provided a rich context of exotic settings and complicated incidents to reveal the many facets of character within Conan and Norbert, men of exceptional strength of character and resolve for whom mutual respect, tested mightily, becomes profound. Torreton bears some resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones, though a smaller, wirier man, and has much of his temperament and forceful presence. Le Bihan, tall and clean-cut, makes of Norbert--who in fact was Vercel's alter ego--an intellectual of quiet courage. Veteran actor Claude Rich epitomizes the absurd obtuseness and arrogance of the French military elite.
As a period piece of exacting and precise detail and as a triumph of assured filmmaking in every aspect, "Capitaine Conan" is a challenging and enriching experience. It possesses the resonance and subtlety of Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion."
"Capitaine Conan" is the second of what Tavernier hopes will be a World War I trilogy that began with the memorable "Life and Nothing But" in 1989.
Capitaine Conan, 1997. Unrated. A Kino International release of a co-production of Les Films Alain Sarde, Little Bear Films and TF1 Productions with the participation of Canal Plus and Studio Images 2. Director Bertrand Tavernier. Producers Alain Sarde and Frederic Bourboulon. Screenplay by Tavernier and Jean Cosmos; based on the novel by Roger Vercel. Cinematographer Alain Choquart. Editors Luce Grunenwaldt, Laure Blancherie and Khadicha Bariha-Simsolo. Costumes Jacqueline Moreau and Agnes Evein. Music Oswald D'Andrea. Art director Guy-Claude Francois. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Philippe Torreton as Capitaine Conan. Samuel Le Bihan as Lt. Norbert. Claude Rich as Gen. Pitard de Lauzier. Berand Le Coq as Lt. De Sceve.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times