Won BAFTA Award for Best Film not in the English Language, 9 Caesar Award nominations (French Oscars) and two wins
Fresh off the ambiguous experience of Bertrand Tavernier’s masterpiece Coup de Torchon (my review here), I embarked on his lesser yet still engaging La vie et rien d’autre (1989). It’s a refreshing take on the repetitive/virtually mono-thematic genre of war movies since most rarely cover the post-war period — in this case, the years following WWI. Considering the extraordinary French casualties suffered in WWI, the film is particularly powerful and devastating. As in Coup de Torchon, Philippe Noiret is at the top of his game as the male lead (Delaplane). His supporting cast is on the whole quite solid — especially the actress Sabine Azéma who plays the icy, wealthy, Parisian Madame Irène de Courti searching for the body of her husband. The actress Pascale Vignal is quite good as Alice who is searching for the body of her fiance.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
La Vie et rien d’autre takes place in France after WWI. Delaplane is responsible for identifying the 350,000 or so soldiers missing in action. The opening scene is one of the most powerful in the film. The wealthy Parisian, Irène arrives at a hospital where Delaplane is photographing corpses and various other shell-shocked soldiers who have lost their minds. The Delaplane we first see is intensely driven and passionate about what he considers an extraordinarily important duty –to precisely identify every man killed or missing in action and alert their families. Irène on the other hand, does not see his passion and instead is frustrated with the layers of bureaucracy which she perceives is preventing her from finding her husband.
Here the second strand of the narrative is introduced. Alice, who took over from the local school teacher when he went off to war, is out of a job after the teacher returns. So, she decides to find her fiance who is also missing in action. Irène and Alice meet in a mostly destroyed town and become friends despite their drastically different social backgrounds.
The third narrative thread introduced is by far the most satirical. The French government is attempting to find an actual “unknown soldier” (conflicting with Delaplane’s stated purpose in life to identify everyone) to bury in pomp and ceremony under the Arc de Troimphe in Paris. This is quite difficult because of the problems of identifying who is an American, a German, or a Frenchman. Tavernier addresses this section with satirical intention — criticizing the obsession over an unidentified soldier as opposed to the desire to identify the soldiers — likewise, the monument concentrates all grief on an almost “symbolic” death instead of the million plus who actually died and whose families suffered.
All of these narrative strands culminate at a particularly horrific location in the country side — where a train carrying new soldiers, hospital cars, ammunition, American soldiers, etc exploded after entering a train tunnel rigged with explosives by the Germans. Delaplane’s soldiers attempt to remove all the dead bodies and invite families to identify them. This is the location for the most powerful scene in the film. The families file past long tables covered with trinkets and belongings of all the dead bodies recovered from the tunnel meticulously labeled to the corresponding body for family members to recognize and identify — tin cups with initials scratched on the bottom, watches, necklaces from lovers and wives, keys, notebooks, booklets, etc.
Delaplane’s stern exterior soon shows cracks as he watches both Irène and Alice soldier through fruitless searches. He soon falls for Irène… It is at this point that I’ll stop my summary.
My Final Thoughts
This isn’t an action film. This is a reflective film. The sets are quite interesting and provide a believable backdrop — the hellish train tunnel filled with the dead and the wrecked train, the hotel placed among the generators of a gigantic factory, the bombed out towns, the camp clustered around the train tunnel, the endless mazy corridors of the hospital filled with shell shocked and wounded. The love story might feel somewhat forced and the ending a tad frustrating. My biggest qualm was actually the film score which I felt tried too hard to drum up tension and expectation when there was none. That said, this is a lost great of the war movie genre — despite its setting COMPLETELY in the POST-WAR period. Definitely check out this Noiret and Tavernier collaboration. Coup de Torchon is a superior film but this is still worth your time.