Add to Technorati Favorites Janette Griffiths: May 2011

Sunday, 15 May 2011

One of the Loveliest Movie Love-Letters

"Life and nothing but" is the English translation of Bertrand Tavernier's 1989 French masterpiece, "La Vie et Rien d'Autre". The translation doesn't do this film justice, neither does any attempt I've made over the past couple of days to describe it. "In the aftermath of WW1, a meticulous, austere, solitary French officer has the task of counting and naming, where possible, the bodies of dead soldiers on the battlefields. As he counts and honours the dead in his quiet, methodical, devoted way, a chance of a return to life is given to him in the form of a beautiful widow, obsessed with finding a trace of her dead husband."

That's my attempt at writing the dread logline. Like most great films, most great stories, "La Vie et Rien d'Autre" surpasses any attempt at reducing it to a couple of sentences. Where to include the story of the search for a suitable corpse to play France's unknown soldier and be buried with full military honours under the Arc de Triomphe? And the story of the young woman, quite sure that her dead man was the only man for her? Or the exuberant sculptor who explains that WW1 has brought to him, a "golden age" of sculpture? Every town will need a memorial, statues will be commissioned the length and breadth of the land.

A cynic would say that to gain popular appeal, such grim subject matter has to include the obligatory love story. But Tavernier and his brilliant screenwriter, Jean Cosmos, weave in a tale of complicated, grown-up, ambiguous, uneasy love. Yes, there is a simpler sub-plot featuring young lovers who find new, fresh, hopeful young love but our eyes and hearts and ears, are drawn back to Philippe Noiret, that colossus of French cinema, in the role of the major. And the exquisite, ethereal, Sabine Azema, as the widow. I say 'ears' because Noiret had one of the greatest movie voices of all time. And it is his voice that Tavernier uses so brilliantly throughout the film and, in the closing scene, in what has to be one of the most beautiful love-letters in all of cinema.

Shades of grey, green and brown, of cold fog and muddy fields dominate the screen for the first 2 hours of this film. Then abruptly, we leave war's end and move forward in time as Tavernier takes us to the Major, walking alone on his estate. The light is golden, the sky has the sharp brightness of early spring. (Tavernier wisely avoids overstatement. The Major walks among the hard angles of vines that have not yet sprouted - no gooey, false lushness here.)And Noiret, in voice-over, reads the 50-something Major's love letter to the widow. Noiret's sonorous, warm, bass voice reads this exquisite passage that encompasses hope, humour, tenderness and profound, true and grown-up love. For those of you who speak French, here is a link to this scene on youtube

Alas, it is only in French. For non French-speakers, I'd recommend watching the sub-titled DVD. But I'd also be happy to send a translation to anybody who requests one. Just add a comment below and I'll email you. In the meantime, does anyone have any other thoughts on great love letters in films?