Lucas Belvaux adapts and directs this multi-award-winning novel for the silver screen, retelling the story of two aging veterans of the Algerian War who carry the mental and psychological scars of their trauma. The first is Bernard, a bad-tempered drunk whose bitterness has twisted him up from the inside by his experiences and cast out from the village in which he resides as a result. The only bridge he hasn’t yet burnt is with his sister Solange – but an alcohol-fuelled outburst at her birthday party and a reprehensible, racially-motivated attack in the aftermath ensures he’s cut off altogether. In an apparent show of mercy, his cousin Rabut – who stood shoulder to shoulder with Bernard as the pair endured the horrors of war half a century before – pleads with the police to spare the repercussions until Bernard’s fugue of drunken rage has passed the morning after.
The trouble is, there’s little chance of Bernard sleeping off the intoxication, since slumber alludes him all night long. The same is true for both Rabut and Solange, with the three family members separately burning the midnight oil as they recall the events that have shaped their characters and their relationships with one another. The majority of the film’s runtime is taken up through flashbacks to the atrocities and injustices that Bernard and Rabut witnessed first-hand and of which Solange was largely spared the gruesome details. In this manner, Belvaux sets up the film as an origin story for the two older men, allowing us to witness the events that have turned them into the damaged humans they are today. But while Rabut has managed to move on with his life as best he can, Bernard remains a prisoner of his own fury, bigotry and frustration.
The trouble with this formula is that the Bernard we meet in his dotage is not all that discernible from the cruel and vindictive youth of his salad days. Despite Solange’s attempts to defend his character and the windows we’re allowed into Bernard’s personal life in his younger years – including a clandestine romance and a fraternal relationship with a young Algerian girl – the man does not exude warmth or charisma at any time. This iciness puts up an impenetrable wall between the character and the viewer which makes it difficult to wrap our empathy around him at all. Rabut fares slightly better as the moralistic martyr who’d rather turn the other cheek than engage in unethical activities, but his passivity and stoicism render him inaccessible in a different way.
The film should be praised for its unflinching depiction of the senselessness and insensibilities of war, while Gérard Depardieu, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Catherine Frot all put in strong performances as Bernard, Rabut and Solange, respectively. Yoann Zimmer and Edouard Sulpice are competent as the younger men, too, but the absence of humanity and emotion in their characters – which could be due to the writing or the performances, it’s hard to say – detracts greatly from the gravitas and the engagement that the film offers. Instead, we’re left with a dour dirge on man’s inhumanity that fails to strike the chords it so badly needs in its few lighter moments.
Screening as part of the French Film Festival 2021