Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2022 3:56 pm 
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A woman's gaze on professional military life and its domestic toll

Louis Garrel stars as a second lieutenant in the French Foreign Legion leading a counter insurgency mission in Mali in this woman's look at professional military life and its toll on relationships. Costarring as his wife Céline is Camille Cottin of "Call My Agent. Rachel Lang, who wrote and directed and served in the army herself, follows two linked military couples in this cool and at times documentary-realistic exploration of French Foreign Legion life that closed the Cannes 2021 Directors’ Fortnight section. It's a nice outing for Garrel, a new direction for which he seems to have beefed up and gotten into great shape. Though some of the action puts men in mortal danger, there's a sunny lightness about many of the scenes; the contrast reflects a disconnect and an underlying weakness.

Peter Bradshaw gave it four our of five stars and spoke glowingly of the film's "intelligence, candor and unaffected artistry," acknowledging the "clear, cool lens" that leaves the action "almost drained of dramatic inflection or emphasis," omitting music (he means no score: there are rousing military choruses), closeups, climactic scenes or monologues, yet remaining nonetheless "entirely engrossing." As he says, through the "cool lens" we nonetheless provided with vivid glimpses of "Fear, death, violence, sex and infidelity," as well as brawny bare male torsos and repeated dark silhouettes of Garrel bathing frontally nude. But the film winds up feeling perhaps just a little too detached, none of those elements fully grabbing the audience, making it seem, despite some snappy military action, that Lang is more telling than showing, more commenting than bringing to life.

The exoticism of the legendary Legion comes through in languages, Russian, Corsican, French, Bambara. Corsica provides the Legion's beautiful if isolated training ground and HQ where also the wives live. Nika (Ina Marija Bartaité) and Vlad (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) are the secondary couple to Maxime (Garrel) and Céline's main one. Vlad is a tightly-wound soldier in Maxime's command. Maxime think's "worried" is good, for him, "Otherwise it becomes routine; that's the trap" (le piège). Nika, Vlad's fiancée, who has come from Ukraine to be with him, languishes at home where she meets Céline and begins to babysit their little boy, Paul (Léo Lévy), while Céline works as a lawyer. The fact that she wants her own child and Vlad doesn't makes Nika's lonely eyes wander to local men, including a soulful driving instructor (Jean Michelangeli). A key line comes when challenged by other military wives: "If I can't have a child, at least I can have friends." They become more than that, of course.

When leave comes midway, Maxime expresses frustration to Céline with a four-month mission that was withdrawn too soon "to do things right," he tells her. Lang gets across that while the mostly male military unit (there's a female superior officer) is having an exciting time on mission, coming back to home base still eager for more, the wives and kids at home, including lawyer Céline and Paul (who listens to a song about a soldier dad who dies), are bored, lonely, and worried. A little like William James, Jeremy Renner's sapper in Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, Maxime is drained and not quite present on leave, and Vlad has too short a fuse for domestic life. The Hurt Locker is about a military maniac and that would overstate the case, but it's a film whose intensity and artistry puts this one to shame.

It's clear where Rachel Lang is going with this, a little too clear: though she's not ultimately that into the military operations, she recognizes the discipline, the challenges, the danger of Foreign Legion life on active mission is damned exciting, but the politics behind such a career can be faulted, and for sure it's hell on domestic life. In fact this is so well acted out that despite impeccable mise-en-scène, casting, and acting and some nice individual scenes the storyline never quite builds up much emotional value. Even the death of one of the main characters feels remote. Lang rounds things out artistically with a brief homoerotic fantasy sequence of Maxime's unit tussling shirtless in combative slow motion duos to a background of French rap, a sequence obviously reminiscent of the mother of all female-directed French Foreign Legion films, Claire Denis' Beau Travail. But it feels tacked on, too late to raise the military side of this binary picture to a higher level either emotional or aesthetic.

Garrel has actually been in ten films since this one already, two of which (The Crusade/La croisade and L'Innocent) he directed, and the recent film one in which he appears that I still would most like to see is J'Accuse/An Officer and a Spy, the highly acclaimed if (because by Polanski) controversial account of the Dreyfus Affair, another earlier and better film in which Louis Garrel, as Alfred Dreyfus, got to dress up in a military uniform.

Our Men/Mon légionnaire, 106 mins., debuted in Cannes Directors Fortnight Jul. 15, 2021, showing also at 'Angoulême, Jerusalem, Naumur, BFI London, Stockholm, and in Jan. 2022 Rotterdam (virtual). It opened theatrically in France Oct. 6, 2021 (AlloCiné press 3.3, public 2.9), and is included in the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema of UniFrance and Film at Lincoln Center Mar. 3-13, 2022.

*Sadly Ina Marija Bartaité was run over and killed while riding a bike on Apr. 7, 2021, aged 24.

AlloCiné press rating 3.3 (66%).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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