‘Les Yeux Brules’: Cannes Review

Courtesy of ECPAD
An invaluable portrait of the work and wisdom of French army filmmakers

A newly restored version of Laurent Roth's 1986 film premiered in the Cannes Classics sidebar.

War is hell, and documenting war is definitely no walk in the park either, as evidenced by the numerous photojournalists — from Robert Capa to Tim Hetherington — who have died in the line of duty. Paying tribute to some of France’s most famous combat photographers and cinematographers, the restored 1986 docu-fiction film Les Yeux Brules (Blazing Eyes) features such eminent lensmen as Raymond Depardon, Raoul Coutard and Pierre Schoendoerffer alongside a wealth of archive footage from the First World War up through the 1970’s. It’s an essential record for anyone interested in 20th century visual history, and should see continued festival and museum play after a premiere in the Cannes Classics sidebar.

Written and directed by Laurent Roth, who made the movie during his mandatory military service in the ECPA (Etablissement Cinematographique et Photographique des Armees), Les Yeux Brules combines fiction and documentary techniques as it revisits the work of French army filmmakers through their own words and images.

Set inside Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris, the story focuses on a young woman (played by Boy Meets Girl star Mireille Perrier) who picks up a trunk belonging to Jean Peraud — a war photographer who was taken prisoner at the battle of Dien Bien Phu during the First Indochina War and disappeared after an attempted escape. Inside the box are hundreds of photos from his career, which the woman then discusses with various veteran cameramen she meets in the terminal.

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It’s a rather strange scenario, but one which allows ample time for former members of the ECPA to talk about their métier while sitting around and smoking an impressive quantity of cigarettes. The sangfroid they display when explaining what it’s like to capture a battle scene is both daunting and admirable, as is the way they mix aesthetics with life-and-death situations. “It’s about trying to find beauty,” says one war-hardened shutterbug, while Coutard — who, after serving in Indochina, went on to shoot classics like Breathless, Jules et Jim and Contempt — remembers having to deal with all the boredom and down-time, as well as how difficult it could be to film action worthy enough of a newsreel.

Roth and editor Marie-Christine Dijon intercut the interview scenes with loads of official army archives, which are presented thematically rather than chronologically. Shots of soldiers heading out to the front during the two world wars are mixed together with scenes in Algeria and Vietnam. The technique can feel a bit portentous, especially when accompanied by J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, or when the image inverts to negative, turning battle sequences into fields of white and black.

But the power of such documents is undeniable, and there are certain scenes — notably one of Germans surrendering during WWI — that are fascinating to watch, while the most memorable discussion is with the late photographer-artist Marc Flament. Comparing images of war to paintings by Titian and Rembrandt, the scarf-wearing aesthete relates with absolute calm how he stood by a wounded soldier in Algeria during his final dying breaths, taking snapshots of his face as it passed from agony to serenity. As Flament speaks, we see the resulting photos on screen, and it’s a chilling reminder of Jean Cocteau’s dictum that a film is essentially “death at work.”

Production company: ECPAD (Etablissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Defense)
Cast: Mireille Perrier, Andre Lebon, Daniel Camus, Pierre Ferrari, Raoul Coutard, Marc Flament, Pierre Schoendoerffer
Director, screenwriter: Laurent Roth
Director of photography: Bernard Miale
Editor: Marie-Christine Dijon
International sales: ECPAD

No rating, 105 minutes