1 November 2017 | dbdumonteil
Ballad of a soldier.
Probably the first film in the history of cinema with a real-time structure :it was before "the set up", "the rope" ," Les Fanatiques"(Alex Joffé ,1957) .Must it be repeated one more time that the Nouvelle Vague did not invent the concept with the (admittedly good) "Cleo De 5 A 7" ,that there are people who did experimental things earlier?Like the four movies I mention above ,Leonide Moguy's movie has the three unities :unity of time,unity of place and unity of action.
Made at a time when an impending war was threatening, the movie used WW1 as an alibi to warn their contemporaries,like Gance's remake of1 "J'Accuse" ,Renoir's "La Grande Illusion "or Edmond T.Greville's "Menaces ".The military censorship made no mistake when they asked the producers to change the original title ("Le Déserteur" ):like other movies ,it disappeared during the war ,only to surface again in 1945.
During WW1, a train is stopped by a bombing ;a young soldier ,Paul,takes advantage of the opportunity to go to his native village to see his parents .His sergeant has given him one hour. From the outset ,the film had nothing to attract the contemporary audience: a sinister train ,black smoke, tired soldiers (the film takes place in October 1918,probably so as to give hope to the audience after the ending), and a fog which wraps the whole movie like a shroud .It gives the movie an almost eerie atmosphere : a ghostly train near a ghostly village.
Private Paul meets his mother in the church :the scene is remarkable for the only sound you hear is the canticles the congregation sings ;it seems like a truce ,but it's short-lived .As soon as they live the church ,we know that the holier-than-thou mom (Berthe Bovy)is an over possessive selfish woman .
The village is not a safe place .Even though there is not a single fight scene ,we feel war here there and everywhere: there's a continuous sound of cannon shots, threatening planes in the sky ,Gendarmes patrolling the street to catch the deserters.
Paul's fiancée ,Marie ,is working in a tavern for soldiers where the owner,Auguste ,woos her.The smoky room full of drunken soldiers echoes the lugubrious foggy outside.The owner,one-eyed Auguste is a war profiteer ;his sudden reappearance,when the lovers share one moment of happiness(the only one in the whole movie) is worthy of the finest film noir.Besides,the very reappearance of Paul in his native place is a bit surrealist and dreamlike itself.
Paul's mother has turned Marie out of the house because she does not want a girl in state custody to be her daughter-in-law .Moguy's depiction of the home-front is hardly exaggerated :in Paris, as Proust and Martin Du Gard wrote in their books, the shirkers were dining in luxury restaurants when the privates were living in hell.In this small village, the bourgeois mother does not want a poor orphan to become her only child's wife ;the father is a poor man -the bird in the cage is a transparent metaphor- under his missus' thumb.Their quarrel may seem theatrical,but time is running short and the director intends to accelerate the motion.
"Je T'Attendrai ",because of the short time which is given to the soldier, is "carried along by its own momentum".From the peaceful scene in the church to the breathtaking final scenes,the speeding- up of the story is continuous.Besides,short sequences of the soldiers repairing the railroad track come in between those of the soldier's "furlough" ,and add to the suspense.
Jean-Pierre Aumont was the "Jeune Premier"(romantic male lead) of the era .Corinne Luchaire had already been directed by Moguy in "Prison Sans Barreaux " ,but that work has not worn well.Her strange beauty works wonders here ;unfortunately,she was a collaborationist journalist's daughter .Her father was sentenced to death in the Liberation days, and she was to die of TB ,age 28.
To write that "Le Deserteur" aka " Je T'Attendrai " is a must for anyone interested in the past of the French cinema is to state the obvious.Its restoration is cause for celebration .