“In comparison to the duration of the Allied Victory March down the Champs-Elysses, about three hours, I calculated that given the same speed, step, and military formations, the march of those who died in this inexpiable madness would have lasted 11 days and 11 nights.” – Major Delaplane
A farmer tills his land in hope that his field will be productive enough for his family to survive in the bleak spring just after the end of the First World War. His plowshare strikes a large metal object and roughly brings it just above the soil – an unexploded artillery shell. Before the ordinance squad can be summoned, the dull thump of a lone explosion breaks the morning silence. Rather than the brash action of the typical war film, Life and Nothing But traffics in the unappealing grind of rebuilding in the aftermath of war. Mines and unexploded detritus litter the countryside, men are scattered in temporary hospitals across the map, buildings are left in ruin, and women are left with no sign as to whether their men are alive, dead, or somewhere in between. Major Delaplane, played by the great Phillipe Noiret, is tasked with finding those missing in action. He is well suited for the job, he is fastidious about the dead, and refuses to simply gloss over the number of bodies with an estimate. He does not speak of glory or honor – he is an accountant, and his method of honoring the fallen is to not forget the waste that was their life. In the unusual event that a person is found alive, they are only half a man, missing limbs or memory or sanity.
His job is a thankless one, and serves to infuriate his superiors, who cannot forget the dead soon enough. With over 350,000 men still missing from the carnage of the First World War, already a positive spin was placed by the armed forces. Not only to belie the horror of trench warfare, but to ensure that the lines for the enlistment of fresh meat for the next war remained long and energetic. Idealistic youth, forever longing for distant adventure and action without consequences has always provided excellent cannon fodder, and will always as long as they remain utterly ignorant of the catastrophic waste and denial of human dignity that conflict requires. Major Delaplane rants about the poisonous words already being used by the generals who were in command of this disaster: “War’s devastating allure only appears to be destructive,” quoting one general who clearly misses the battle already. Though The Great War, as it was called before it became a franchise, was heralded as the end of all wars, Delaplane can see that the cycle only begins anew. As he keeps his books and continues directing digs to recover additional bodies, his world-weary countenance knows the next one will come before he finds those lost in this one.
The film is sprawling yet intimate, and cluttered with details of the time and circumstance. We get to experience the drudgery that is required to clear the detritus of warfare. Without much fanfare, we see rooms of files, boxes of photographs, a dangerous excavation in a train tunnel, and scouring of hospitals for unidentified men. There are parasites, looking to make a quick buck on the desperation of widows, and a sculptor who is in high spirits for all the work he is getting making memorial statues for small towns. Delaplane’s search is across a titanic area of land, but the focus is brought down to a wealthy woman who is looking for her husband. She has become a cynic, noting that dancing and music is not immoral for her, since she is no longer a widow – she has already moved on and found comfort in accepting that her husband is dead. Like most everything else in Life and Nothing But, this is more complicated than it appears, and this romantic subplot is no simple story of redemption. After all, she is of the landed gentry, the upper class that allowed this war, and any war, to happen. Specifically, her father-in-law made deals with Germans during the war to line his pockets, including the resale of a captured ship back to the enemy. The major is unable to ignore that it was the aristocracies of Europe that were at the root of this war, and that it is always the wealthy who are always at the forefront of clamoring for the next one. Despite the friction between them, she seems to understand his sense of loss. As she notes sardonically, “A patriotic song and they are off to war again. It is a club, the club of the victorious. The losers have a club too.”
Though such a storyline in lesser hands would be ripe for tragedy porn, what is part of the film’s singular approach is to concentrate on the recovery of the corpse, which is mindless and mundane work. Dig, separate, find personal effects, take photographs, perhaps bring potential family members to look for familiar clues like a recognizable pocket watch. There is very little in the way of tears throughout, every member of the cast appearing simply too tired to emote any further. The restraint shown throughout is a hallmark of Tavernier’s work, never drowning in superfluous emotion. There is emotion, but only of the genuine kind: anger at the parasites that try to steal a buck from desperate widows, loneliness of those left alive, weariness of rebuilding a nation torn. Occasionally, there is joy – these people are not indulging in their depression, rather they take a moment to sing a bawdy song, love when possible, and enjoy the wine that has become too rare for France to endure. Without bold monologues, this fatalistic commentary upon the inexplicable human need for mass bloodshed provides a haunting backdrop on the film.
While Delaplane sifts through the countryside, an officer under his command has been searching for the body of an unknown soldier for a public memorial. This is the sort of public sham that the Major detests, but he has his orders to find an unidentifiable body that is definitely French, and is unlikely to ever be identified. There is a solemn ceremony before the bones are transported to the Arc de Triomphe, as another reassuring symbol that the sacrifice is worthwhile. Ironically, this is presided over by Minister of Defense Andre Maginot, whose namesake was to guarantee a future free from invasion from the east. The Major finds it distressing in principle, and finds the Unknown Soldier more symptomatic of the public wish to ignore the dead, move on, and learn nothing. He only values the living and the closure they can find from knowing where their loved ones went. He presents a list of 51,000 people identified in the prior two months, and his superior could not give a shit. The pomp and circumstance supersedes the practical accomplishments, as the business of cleaning up after a war is all about selling the next one. Though the film lacks the verbose wit of The Americanization of Emily, it strikes just the right tone.
Bertrand Tavernier shares with Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa a keen grasp of the subtleties of human nature. Mentored by Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Sautet, he was well-placed to develop a resonant voice for introspective films. As a director he crafts fairly complicated and philosophical works that evade easy delineation. A Sunday in the Country uses a leisurely stroll through the beautiful French countryside as a poetic reflection upon art and the fading of youth. Coup de Torchon is one of the finest films ever made about darker human impulses as basic to our identity. I hardly do such sophisticated films justice with short descriptions, other than to say with a Tavernier film the viewer is given a great deal to regard, delivered with flawless acting and genuinely felt human characters.