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From classics including Abel Gance’s J’accuse, Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses to more recent films such as A Very Long Engagement, Merry Christmas and La France, the number of French films about the Great War is almost as big as those set during WWII. Damien Odoul’s La Peur is the latest in a long line of films that sees a filmmaker take his cameras into the trenches to capture the brutal loss of lives and innocence of France’s brave young men at the start of the 20th century.
Though loosely based on the acclaimed Fear: A Novel of World War I by the late novelist and actual WWI veteran Gabriel Chevallier, the most frightening thing about this film is how unemotional and detached the whole enterprise remains, despite some visually impressive shots. In and out of cinemas in a flash in France this summer, despite winning the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo for “independence of spirit,” this won’t fare much better when it’ll have its international premiere at Toronto in the World Cinema section.
Odoul’s films (The Story of Richard O., Errance) tend to have some visual panache and La Peur is no exception, as seen in the impressive opening sequence, in which a pacifist is brutally beaten by a group of nationalists ready for war in early 1914. They are singing the Marseillaise, of course, though the footage is in slowmotion, creating an intriguing disconnect between the images and the sound that further underlines the paradox of a pacifist being beaten for his convictions.
On top of that, Odoul has added the voice-over of his protagonist, Gabriel (Nino Rocher), who explains he was “19 and didn’t know anything about the war,” and then suggests he imagined it would be like the projections of a “cinematograph, a spectacle that can’t be missed”. Unfortunately, what follows doesn’t exactly live up to at least the second part of that equation, though some battlefield sequences of trench warfare, all filmed in co-producing Quebec, have a dash of the spectacular, even though what should have been the most brutal scene of explosions is hampered by laughably poor CGI.
Odoul, who also wrote the screen adaptation, hasn’t made it easy for himself, since the novel isn’t a narrative-driven story so much as a combination of anti-war ideas and semi-autobiographical material, with the latter made more explicit by Odoul by taking Chevallier’s lead, called Jean in the novel, and renaming him Gabriel. But for a film that’s named after such a gut-punch, stomach-churning and directly identifiable emotion, the filmmaker applies a lot of distancing techniques, starting with the voice-over, which is semi-literary and self-conscious and supposedly includes passages of the letters Gabriel writes to his pretty girlfriend, Marguerite (Anioula Maidel), occasionally seen silently staring into the distance.
Gabriel Le Bomin’s critically acclaimed 2006 feature Fragments of Antonin suggested something of the horror and thoroughly disorienting nature of war and what it does to the mind of young and inexperienced men and one supposes Odoul tries to do something similar here. But since Gabriel remains such a cipher — despite the voice-overs — the result more often feels like a series of overly familiar yet narratively semi-disjointed tableaux from the Great War that lack any real center or connective tissue. Rocher, a newcomer like almost everyone in the cast, is too much of a blank slate and too inexperienced an actor to get any kind of emotion across in scenes in which he needs to go beyond simply reacting to his surroundings. It also doesn’t help that physically, the lead cuts such a dashing figure that it sometimes feels like Odoul’s shooting a war-themed perfume ad with ephebic youths with perfect hair and lightly dusted young torsos jumping about in the milky light in their half-open vintage uniforms.
If some of the visuals are impressive — including a battlefield full of dead bovines, their legs sticking upwards like strange silhouettes in the hazy smoke — what’s lacking is any sense of intimacy or emotion, a major problem if your movie is supposed to be about one.
Production companies: JPG Films, Tu Vas Voir, Les Productions De La Peur, Transfilm International, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Nino Rocher, Pierre Martial Gaillard, Theo Cazal, Eliott Margueron, Frederic Buffaras, Jonathan Jimeno Romera, Charles Josse, Anioula Maidel, Miro Lacasse, Patrick de Valette
Director: Damien Odoul
Screenplay: Damien Odoul, screenplay based on the novel by Gabriel Chevallier
Producers: Jean-Pierre Guerin, Gerard Lacroix
Director of photography: Martin Laporte
Production designer: Raymon Dupuis
Costume designer: Henri Aubertin
Editor: Marie-Eve Nadeau
Music: Colin Stetson
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 92 minutes
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