The French writer/director Bertrand Tavernier died earlier this year (2021), like François Truffaut another of that band of movie critics who went on to prove that they could make great films as well as write about them. Captain Conan (Capitaine Conan) might not be the most shining example of Tavernier at his best, but it is a great example of what he was good at – sidestepping genre, effortless (almost invisible) technique, humane performances.
It stars the effortlessly charming Philippe Torreton as the titular captain, a rough and ready officer in charge of a team of guerrilla-style fighters who specialise in quick in-and-out sorties and sabotage. They’re what we’d now call a SWAT team except this is the First World War. Conan is the sort who’s happier with his men than with the top brass, knows which whores have the clap, can source decent food when it’s scarce, is rakish, a ladies’ man, anti-authoritarian, ducks and dives, a man’s man, you get the picture.
His great friend, Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan), is something of a contrast – smoother, educated, measured – Tavernier setting these two up as a clash waiting to happen and then pushing them into and away from each other just enough to give this strangely rambling drama enough edge to keep us going.
It looks like a war film but isn’t a war film. It’s a human drama set in a time of war and is about people rather than battles. Tavernier’s goes about disengaging our expectations in a variety of ways, first setting the whole thing in an unusual theatre of conflict. We’re not in the wet trenches of Northern France or Belgium but out in the sunny east, engaged in the fight against the Bulgarians. Second, he ends the war fairly early into the film. Suddenly it’s armistice day and, really, here’s what Tavernier is interested in, the way men who one minute are being asked to be bloodthirsty killers are suddenly being stood down and are expected to become model citizens, which is particularly difficult if, like Conan’s men, you have been recruited because standing down isn’t something that comes easily.
Tavernier’s picture of war is full of unusual but accurate detail, like the comms guys who are running telephone cables across terrain their troops are still fighting to secure, dysentery giving everyone the shits, the dead being dumped unceremoniously in a heap by stretcher bearers anxious to get on with it, the endless provisioning that’s necessary – supply lines, comms, sanitation, the processing of the dead, the unglamorous infrastructure that wins wars and makes societies run. And his picture of the uneasy post-war peace is the same – men carousing in bars, dancing with pretty women, stealing a side of pork and cooking it in their room. In fact girls and food are what these men most want whether it’s war or peace. But at a certain point I started wondering, yes, but is there a story?
There is one. And it concerns a gang of soldiers raiding a music hall to steal the takings and killing a couple of innocent people in the process. This is murder and so there’s going to be a trial. Norbert is going to be on the prosecuting side and Conan on the defence. It all sounds like a showdown of A Few Good Men calibre is brewing. But…but…but… Tavernier hedges it all about with digressions and side plots and then doesn’t quite give us the confrontation we crave. He introduces side characters like the venal general (Claude Rich), the arrogant lieutenant (Bernard Le Coq) and the general’s garrulous relative (Catherine Rich, Claude Rich’s wife, in fact) searching for her deserter son, a bit of humour, and more side plots, eventually deferring gratification to the point where the “story” is no longer that important.
All part of the fog of war, or the fog of the immediate post-war period, to be a bit less snappy. Captain Conan is a soap opera, in effect, and feels like it could just roll on for ever. To conclude any storyline definitively would be to kill the film. Other storylines are always waiting in the wings to do their bit.
It’s a strange war film, and not fit to serve if what you want is some shooting and clear winners and losers. Set on the “wrong” front, not even in wartime for most of its running time, with lead characters whose lead status seems to be often in question. All human life is here.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021