Capitaine Conan

on September 05, 1997 by Alex Albanese
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French director Bertrand Tavernier's latest film, "Capitaine Conan," an epic tour-de-force set in the Balkans at the close of the First World War, hits with such intelligence, dramatic skill and brute cinematic force that it literally leaves moviegoers stunned as the lights come back up. An adaptation of Roger Vercel's semi-autobiographical 1939 novel, this is one of the most engrossing, morally complex and psychologically insightful war films in recent memory--reducing Hollywood claptrap like "G.I. Jane" to the level of a Three Stooges short.
The grasp of Tavernier, who won the 1996 best director Cesar, is masterful, plunging the viewer deep into the chilling ambiguities and Byzantine complexities of a secret war that continued long after Armistice Day. The movie deftly shuttles among the bureaucratic farce, military courtsmanship, violent thrill of the front, and cutting politics of the officers mess. The battle scenes are as visceral as those in "Glory" but work in a completely different, handheld way that bows to the neo-realist European cinema of the '40s.
Philippe Torreton (winner of the 1996 Cesar for best actor) stars as Conan, the leader of a band of guerrillas who ruthlessly fight behind enemy lines and who are useful to the high command only to a point. Samuel Le Bihan gives an understated performance as Lt. Norbert, an educated teacher who makes for an unlikely recipient of Conan's respect but who can go only so far in agreeing with his friend's methods. Though much of the theme and incident have been portrayed in countless war films, "Capitaine Conan" always avoids both cinematic and sentimental cliche. It is a finely wrought film--as hard, precise and heartbreaking as its title character. Starring Philippe Torreton, Samuel Le Bihan and Bernard Le Coq. Directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Written by Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Cosmos. Produced by Alain Sarde and Fredric Bourboulon. A Kino release. Drama. French-language; English subtitles. Unrated. Running time: 130 min.
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