Wednesday, 7 March 2012

French war poetry… J’Accuse (1919)

This deeply moving film was made in the closing months of the First World War. Abel Gance had lost many close friends in the conflict and had served briefly himself.

If ever a war film earned its stripes and the respect to be listened to, it must be this one. For the astonishing march of the dead at the film’s climax, Gance used two thousand serving French soldiers back home on leave… within weeks of their return to the front, the majority had been killed.

This was the reality of “the War to end all wars” and Gance reacted with coruscating anger and honesty.

The film opens with a stunning gesture; hundreds of soldiers march into view and assemble to form the words: “J’Accuse”. The military commanders were confused but Gance obviously kept his true intent close enough to his chest.

But it was not as simple as just being “anti-war”, Gance felt that some things were worth fighting for and that a man’s sacrifice had to be worth it. He was not convinced that this had been the case in the war although the betrayals were not just from the Germans but from some of those back home who profited from the conflict and the soldiers’ absence.

Gance based his grand message around a married couple and a neighbouring poet who are locked in an unbreakable triangle of unresolvable love. Romuald Joubé features as the poet, Jean Diaz, who acts most precisely as the voice of Gance.

Jean is deeply in love with Édith Laurin (Maryse Dauvray), the wife of an abusive huntsman François Laurin played with maudlin ferocity by Séverin-Mars.

Early in the film, whilst their village hosts a seasonal party outside, Édith is stuck in her house and sick at heart for the gentler man but her boorish husband won’t let her join in as he plays with his beloved dog and a recently slaughtered deer in his parlour.

The course of their relationship looks to be a simple one but the ensuing conflict is to have a civilizing affect on François as all around are butchered and brutalised. This is a complex and unpredictable tale.

Jean is seen reading one of his poems to his mother. The screen is filled with beatific images of rural bliss as Jean reads a tribute to the sun and nature. Gance is great here in creating these impressionistic images – he was intent on showing the minds of his characters as much as their outer selves. This may be something of a challenge for modern audiences but he meant it and he won’t compromise throughout the film.

War is declared and François is called up first. Aware of his wife’s interest in Jean he sends her away to stay with his parents, safe from temptation. Sadly she is anything but and is captured as the German advance across north-eastern France went un-checked.

Édith's father, Maria Lazare (Maxime Desjardins) fought in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war and is enjoying himself too much with his fellow veterans to properly react to events. Jean is galvanized by Édith’s capture and signs up for officer training.

Jean ends up being François’s commanding officer and, proves his bravery in a daring raid on an enemy munitions dump. The two men start to become friends and accept each other’s feelings for the woman in their life.

The years pass and Jean is invalided home where he is reunited with Édith. In one of the film’s most startling moments she reveals a child underneath her rain coat and then tells the tale of an horrific multiple rape at the hands of German troops. Gance shows this in flashback by a line of grim shadows reaching out for the terrified woman.

Gance shows us so much horror but it is not always directly-revealed…it doesn’t need to be. Perhaps we are de-sensitised by graphic depictions? Throughout he repeats the phrase “J’Accuse” it is for us all to answer. Not just history, the winners and the losers, governments and armies.

François returns and eventually uncovers Édith’s secret and he goes back to the front after nearly killing her daughter. Jean follows knowing that he owes his friend and France that much. The war proceeds and Jean returns home a broken man who ushers in the march of the dead as they rise from battlefield graves to come home to confront those they were fighting for. Not everyone is worthy of their sacrifice…

Jean has repeated visions of a dancing circle of skeletons. This is superimposed over religious images and shows his gradual breakdown in response to the horror of war. Death dances all over Jean's sensitive soul, tearing away his life and loves. Even standing with Édith just as the war has begun he sees death hovering over the idyllic landscape outside his window.

“The soldier in him had killed the poet!” and he finds that he cannot re-connect with the spirit that drove him to eulogise the Sun. Instead he curses it and the inspiration it gave mankind to squander happiness for martial glory.

This is a deeply affecting film and one that lingers in the mind. The use of quotes from soldiers’ actual letters makes the modern viewer pay guilty respect to the story. The soldiers used were still at war, the film uses actual footage of the conflict, whilst the director and writer had fought in the war and lost many friends. This one is from the heart.

For a film eventually released in 1919, J’Accuse looks technically very advanced. There is some incredibly rapid intercutting and gorgeous imagery – the fields shown during the poem, the carnival in the village, the innocents playing by the river. The camera follows Jean on his return and then pans up to show his house whilst Édith’s return through the rain is shown from a moving camera attached to a vehicle in front of her. Gance was pushing invention and technique as far as he could.

At two and a half hours long, this appears close to the original full-length story and the Lobster DVD is superbly restored and does the film proud. I can fully understand Kevin Brownlow’s respect for this remarkable director.

J’Accuse is available from the usual sources – I got mine from the BFI Shop, you may have to go there in person though as this is an import sold only through the store.

Next on my list is La Roue and then the long wait for Napoleon to arrive on these shores in 2013?

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