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Some 350,ooo French soldiers in WW I have never been found.

Is that possible? With almost one million five hundred thousand dead on fields which were fought over multiple times, and make-shift graveyards from the early battles destroyed in the later, is 22% of bodies never identified an improbable number?

Movies Life and NothingBertrand Tavernier, the famed French director, set himself to imagine what it was like, at the end of the war, to be among those trying to find, and identify, the untold numbers of dead.  With a screen play by Jean Cosmos, based on extensive research, his Life and Nothing But, [La vie et rien d’autre] (1989) tells a war story unlike almost any other — not its glory, not its whizz-bang, not its fear nor cowardice nor protest nor mutiny. It looks at what remains: ruined villages, live shells and helmets turned up by horse-drawn plows, French soldiers, including African “darkies” looking for the bodies of the dead, widows and families trying to find their missing, even if only by a belt-buckle, an engraved cup, a boot.

But this is Bertrand Tavernier.  This is not an anti-war film, he tells us in in post-film interview.  It is a film about peace, about people relearning to live in peace.  More, it is about memory, and the fight to retain it. Major Delaplane (the wonderful Phillipe Noiret,) old for a soldier and under-ranked for his age, has been told to find and identify the dead in the battlefields of Verdun, two years after the end of the war.  He sets about his task with unexpected zeal, complaining about a new July law that allows families to come to such search sites and try to identify pieces of property that might belong to their missing men.  “How are we to keep an accurate account?” he complains.

Into the rain-driven, muddy roads and fields two women enter. Alice [Pascale Vignal] is a very young country woman, relieved of her teaching job when the former teacher, a veteran with one arm, returns. After a short time as a waitress in the war-recovering town, she is taken on by Major Delaplane to write letters of condolence to the families of the identified dead. Irène de Courtil [Sabine Azéma] on the other hand is an elegant, privileged woman from the haute bourgeoisie; her husband, for whom she is looking, is the son of a French Senator.  She is accustomed to begin treated with deference and obedience, neither of which she encounters in Major Delaplane who, after all, has little deference for his military superiors.  She demands more attention to her husband, the Senator’s son.  Delaplane rages, “There are 350,000 men missing.  I will give you exactly 1/350,000th of my time!”

He tries to convince them both, paternally to Alice, gruffly to Irène , that their searching is most likely fruitless, they would be better to interest themselves in the living, some of whom are clearly interested in Alice. And so life begins to take up its post wartime rhythms and, unexpectedly, between the Major and Irène as they  become aware of qualities slowly revealed in the other, most of all of courage and obstinate determination. In fact, the revelations are so subtle, hidden in the sparks of verbal combat between the two, that for some, her passionate declaration that there is a formula to beginning a life together, ‘consisting of three words’ will come as too improbable, too much a cinematic fairy-tale intrusion into a realistic slice of post-war injury.  The first time I saw the film, a year ago, I was of such a mind.  The second viewing, recently, I was more convinced, swept in, perhaps more sensitive to Tavernier’s subtleties.

Not only is the movie about love, and recovery from war, there are many small details that convey a strong sense of the years of 1919-1920 in France: the inclusion of black-African colonial troops, often used in the most dangerous de-mining work; the use of Vietnamese men as a labor force, digging up the dead; the rehabilitation barracks where an armless soldier learns to manipulate tools with his teeth; the cynical boasting of another that the current French army had beaten Napoleon’s — in the number of dead; a doctor happy that only two have died from gas exposure today because it means that ‘things are calming down.’ Late in the film, the Major points out that a factory they are now headquartered in was spared bombardment; even during a war mutual understanding can take place with the right connections and enough capital.

The area commander pushes an officer to come up with 9 unidentified remains from 9 war zones, one to be chosen as the nation’s unknown soldier.  Delaplane has already refused — and then insulted as being “still a Dreyfusard,” short-hand for being a closet liberal. “My job is to identify them, not put them in a lottery!” he shouts.  They are to be unidentified men says the commander, “but no Huns or Brits under the Arc de Triomphe!  And no Blacks!” “Of course, Commandant,” comes the response.  The scenes of the search and selection of the one among the many are taken straight from accounts of the very acts; both French and British proceeded in this way.  The Germans had slightly different ways of locating and memorializing their missing, who were mostly on French soil, and therefore controlled by treaty obligations.

The tension heightens as the search for bodies moves from the fields to a tunnel in which a mixed Red-Cross, troop, munitions train was blown up as the Germans retreated. The danger of cave-ins and old explosives igniting is palpable, as is the Major’s realization that both women are searching for the same man.

For all the growing regard between the Major and the Madame, it is still layered with tension.  At an otherwise happy evening in a small club, dancing to an American jazz band, a French combo takes the stage.  A patriotic song ensues, joined by all, including the Major.  She leaves in a rush.  When he follows she expostulates:

 It’s a club. It’ll be a club for years to come. The club of those who won the war.  And the losing side will have it’s club too.

But the Major is not a full member of the club.  He resists the entire notion of a memorial to an Unknown Soldier.  When reprimanded for inappropriate response during the selection ceremony, he responds:

It distressed me.  But it reassured them.  They had 1,500,000 killed, but now they’ll only think of this one.  This sham is a scandal.

He has fought to preserve the memory of all, of each individual; the Unknown is a symbol enabling forgetting.  The film itself, for Tavernier, is his own contribution to not forgetting.

In the end, despite Irene’s passionate declaration, we are not left with predictable happy ending, only a suggestion of growth and moving on. The Major leaves the army and returns home to a small rural property, exchanging tender letters with Irène , wishing his courage in love had been as great as in war.


The line of the story, and many scenes will be familiar to those who have seen the more recent The Very Long Engagement (2004), also from France.   The director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a half generation younger than Tavernier (1953 v  1941) brings a more modern sensibility to his film.  Tavernier is always serious, considered, hewing to a strict movie-making morality.

A camera does not give you a “safe conduct”, it demands responsibility. A filmmaker, in his view, can never be vigilant enough: [In Deathwatch, 1979] Roddy is becoming a living camera. I felt a kinship to that. The fear I feel as a director is of two sorts. It sometimes seems that everything you see, you immediately unconsciously transport into terms of filmmaking. That can be very dangerous because you can witness something sad or close to you and suddenly think, my God, that would be great in a film. It’s horrible. I did that a couple of times and felt ashamed. I wrote a line for the movie about the second fear. Roddy’s wife says ‘He understood things only when he was filming them.’ Sometimes I feel I’m only real, I’m only open, only noticing things when I work and not when I live. That is a danger which I think a lot of artists feel   from Senses of Cinema

Jeunet moves his scenes along somewhat quicker, the colors are not restrained or manipulated as in Life and Nothing But.  There are more encounters, not two people working slowly at their single encounter, but as in the earlier film, scenes of families, hoping against hope for some final determination of the fate of their loved ones.  It may be an easier viewing of the same era in war wounded France, but take the time to appreciate its predecessor.  Tavernier always pays close, and repeated viewings.