War is hell, but peacetime is a bigger problem for Lt. Conan (Philippe Torreton) and his squad of fierce, mostly Breton guerrillas. World War I is still raging when director Bertrand Tavernier introduces his hero, who specializes in stealth attacks against the Bulgarian and German troops on the other side of the trenches. Soon, however, news of the armistice arrives, and Conan’s troopscredited by their commander as being among the few thousand Allied “warriors” who actually won the warare stuck in Bucharest with nothing to do but get into trouble.
Capitaine Conan is the second in Tavernier’s proposed trilogy about France’s World War I experience, and like the first, 1989’s Life and Nothing But, it’s mostly about the aftermath. With the war declared over, Conan’s commandos expect to return home, but the Balkan front soldiers aren’t demobilized; France decides to keep them in the area to contain the Bolshevik menace. (This proto-Cold War strategy is called “peace on a war footing.”) While waiting for further orders, the men who have recently been slitting the throats of Bulgarians are supposed to be perfect gentlemen. So when some masked robbers attack a Bucharest bistro, Conan’s men are the logical suspects.
Conan is about to be promoted to captain, but he has been unhappy since the war’s final offensive, when his freewheeling operation was absorbed into the regular army. He’s furious about the treatment of his men and outraged that a postwar tribunal has started reviewing the records for war crimes. Most of the offenses are petty, and all involve privates; the brass has no interest in investigating its own lapses. Conan is further displeased about the choice of prosecutor: his friend Lt. Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan), a young scholar who’s one of the few officers Conan respects. Told that he may be prosecuted for seducing a Romanian officer’s wife, Conan snaps, “If they’re so touchy, why’d they ask for our help?”
Tavernier and Jean Cosmos adapted their script from a 1934 autobiographical novel by Roger Vercel (who in real life was the Norbert character), and like most of the director’s films, Conan has an old-fashioned stateliness. Shot in Romania, the film features epic wide-screen compositions and dramatic mountainside locations. Yet Tavernier instructed his actors to improvise the battle action and told cinematographer Alain Choquart to emulate John Huston’s World War II documentary, The Battle of San Pietro. Choquart shot some scenes with a handheld camera, rushing into the action and panning abruptly from charging soldiers to the corpses of their fallen comrades. The effect is electrifying and intentionally subjective, frequently offering the viewer little more perspective on the battle than the participants would have had.
Conan’s barbarians are not the customary noble heroes of honor-obsessed Francethe officer frankly admits he prefers guerrilla warfare to his civilian job as a tailorand despite Tavernier’s traditional style, his tale is short on glory. The film unflinchingly portrays the French troops’ affliction with cholera, malaria, and diarrhea, and the army band’s attempt to play the Marseillaise is a travesty. The irreverent, maverick Conan has a few moments that play as if he is a character in a French M*A*S*H, but the film’s darkest joke is at his expense: After Conan successfully leads his troops in a bloody assault on a small depot, he’s told that the war has been over for days.
Originally greeted with great enthusiasm, World War I soon dispatched Europe’s obsolete notions of chivalrous combat. Conan has no such notions, of course, and the postwar military tribunal wins only minor victories over wartime ambiguity. Ultimately, Capitaine Conan settles a few of the plot’s outstanding accounts in a final battle. On a philosophical level, however, the puzzles of this complex, profound film remain unresolved.
Boaz Yakin’s two films function as cinematic Rorschach tests. The first, Fresh, the tale of an African-American 12-year-old who outwits some drug dealers, was rapturously reviewed, often as an example of the “new black cinema.” (Yakin is white.) The writer-director’s new A Price Above Rubies follows a young Hasidic woman who rebels against her sect’s restrictive code of behavior; it has been received cautiously at best.
Yet A Price Above Rubies is the more credible of the two, which isn’t to say it’s free of the first one’s flaws. Both are glib and overplotted, and both inflate the gutsiness of their underdog protagonists while demonizing their adversaries. But where Fresh ultimately turns into an example of that most contrived of genres, the sting movie, Yakin’s new film is more naturalistic and less triumphal. Sonia (Renée Zellweger) achieves her freedom, but at a significant cost.
The story begins with an overly folkloric prologue that suggests that our heroine somehow carries within her the spirits of both a mythic wandering Jewess and an inquisitive boy who drowned at a young age. It quickly moves, however, to the real world: Borough Park, Brooklyn, where Sonia and her husband Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald) have just arrived with their infant son Yossi. Mendel is a promising young Torah scholar who has just gotten a job teaching at a Hasidic school. Sonia’s narrow role is to care for Mendel and their child. Her first protest comes when she refuses (unsuccessfully) to allow Yossi’s circumcision, the second when she tries to seduce her husband while he’s praying.
Sonia is not alone in considering Mendel “a holy man,” but life with a saint is stifling. She’s offered an escape by her brother-in-law Sender (Christopher Eccleston), who’s impressed by the knowledge Sonia acquired while working in her family’s jewelry business. Sonia flourishes as a dealer in Sender’s strictly off-the-books local jewelry showroom, but her new job exposes her to many temptations, from nonkosher egg rolls to sexy Afro-Latino jewelry maker Ramon (Allen Payne).
Sonia embodies the problem of the physical in ascetic religions. She’s “too hot,” and her overpowering sexuality disrupts more than Mendel’s prayers. Sonia scandalizes her sister-in-law Rachel (Julianna Margulies) with a kiss on the lips more disruptive than the one in Mrs. Dalloway, and when she goes to seek the counsel of the sect’s aging spiritual leader, her presence reawakens the rebbe’s long-dormant lust.
This is a bit much, yet Zellweger’s presence serves the director well. She’s no Hasidic vamp but rather a deeply conflicted woman whose face conveys more anguish than eroticism. Indeed, Sonia isn’t far removed from Zellweger’s Jerry Maguire role: She’s sexy but wholesome, romantic but practical. The film depends on Zellweger’s likability, vulnerability, and dignity, and the actress proves sturdier than the plot.
A Price Above Rubies is controversial not only because it turns on the circumscribed role of women in Hasidic communities. It also depicts ultra-Orthodox notions of moral superiority, with Mendel flattering his young students that they’re worthier than the goyim who rejected the Torah and wondering what to tell a boy who argues that it’s all right to steal from gentiles. Informed by a Hasidic marriage counselor that people bring suffering on themselves, Sonia angrily asksstirringly if improbablyif that explanation applies to the Holocaust.
Like Fresh, this film ends with an overly tidy victory for its protagonist and features some one-dimensional antagonists: Rachel is all repression and propriety, while Sender is entirely greed and lust. Still, Mendel ultimately turns out not to be altogether unworthy of his intrepid wife, and Yakin’s moral is less anti-Hasidic than pro-worldly. When Mendel finally encounters the wealth of Latino-Catholic icons at Ramon’s house, his reaction is not shock but wonder.CP