La vie et rien d’autre

France, 1989

Directed by Bertrand Tavernier

With Philippe Noiret (Major Dellaplane), Sabine Azéma (Irène de Courtil), Pascal Vignal (Alice), François Perrot (Lieutenant Perrin)

Major Dellaplane is a middle-aged army doctor, a vigorous, candid, and grumpy character with a mission: two years after the end of the First World War, he must find out the bodies, dead or alive, of the French soldiers who went missing into action, to allow their families to have a corpse to mourn – or perhaps a survivor to welcome back, even if badly injured. The task is huge, and compounded by his political and military superiors who are now looking for an anonymous dead body to celebrate the national effort during the war – an unknown soldier whose remembrance in official ceremonies would prevent the citizenry from forgetting the sacrifices made by all the soldiers in the war and rally the nation around the actors of the victory.

Working hard to clear up the battlegrounds and find those so dearly waited for: Philippe Noiret (far left)

He dislikes the idea and lets his aide, Lieutenant Perrin, perform the ungrateful task of digging up a nameless dead. But his workload is not getting easier to handle as he is harassed by the spouse of a missing conscript, Irène de Courtil, whose stubborn quest is supported by the conscript’s father, a senator and wealthy businessman. They often meet in the Meuse, the eastern county where most of the story takes place, but also in Paris, at first quarreling but increasingly looking at each other with sincere curiosity and grudging respect. As she tries to gather whatever happened to her husband, the upper-class woman also meets a young woman, from a poorer background, Alice, who is also looking for a disappeared soldier, her lover, and becomes friend with her. Alice is also an acquaintance of Dellaplane, who tries to help her to achieve a sense of closure.

The obstinate demands from both the two sorrowful women and the authorities intertwine and wear the major out, enabling the film to examine delicate questions about a nation still reeling from a cruel war whose toll far exceeded the expectations. At the individual level there is the sometimes senseless need for hope and the related, excruciatingly difficult task to deal with death. Denial comes as a first resort to handle the harsh reality but can easily become an unreasonable escapism. Not mourning the loved one turns into an obstacle to life. At the community level the problem stands at the opposite: mourning can become a symbolic, idealized way to overlook mass suffering and effortlessly vindicate the authorities which have previously decided to go on war but then prosecuted it in a debatable manner.

A stickler for accuracy and fairness, Dellaplane, in his own boorish and quirky attitudes, stands as the stubborn witness refusing to neglect facts and principles. He is angry at a military keen on glossing over the war horrors to keep the patriotic and sacrificial spirits alive and on ignoring the individual pains lying below rows of statistics that the officers, anyway, find tedious to read and easy to forget. He is displeased to watch nice women wasting time and efforts to fetch back a lost one instead of moving on with life. He gripes and offends. But he is not just bad-tempered and obstructive – Major Dellaplane proves to have a generous and sensitive heart, waiting to get rid of his duties and the related loneliness to move on with his own life.

The romance between Dellaplane and Irène de Courtil pointedly illustrates this better part of the major while enabling the female character to abandon her confrontational and lachrymose position of a woman looking for a disappeared man and to grow up as a woman again bewitched by love and life. Her narrative arc is followed, in her own ways, by Alice. As it happens, Dellaplane finds that both women have far more in common in their quest than they could ever imagined – but he sees to it that the secret affair he has uncovered by chance remains untold, a nice demonstration of his compassionate, smart mind.

Perrin’s hapless quest for the perfect corpse provides comic relief amid the powerful description of the dire straits where many people and places still are after the war ended – Irène de Courtil could claim that the aftermath of the war seem as horrible as the war. “La vie et rien d’autre” clearly sides with its lead male character when it paints the officialdom and the carefully staged efforts to build a collective memory around the war (in particular the amazing obsession of towns’ elected officials to have their own, obviously beautiful, monuments for their local dead soldiers), although it does not really delves into the political debates and maneuvers, relying on biting lines and amusing shots to make the point.

A feisty but sensitive vehicle for the main actor’s exuberant, earthy talent, the film has a perfectly credible and compelling cast bringing a touching authenticity to a painstaking reconstruction of a difficult period when the nation seemed to be a makeshift, fragile business (the Paris offices of the major are in a theater while hotels can be either non-existent or settled in a factory; details nicely highlight the daily challenges that getting a lunch or a job are). The plot is nicely managed, although the editing easily emphasizes anecdotal, pleasant scenes while not focusing more pointedly on the character of Alice and the wider state of the nation. The director has worked hard on his film’s romantic and comic components – and they do awaken the audience to the somber dealings people and countries must learn to make with death, life and memory. What should matter, in the final analysis, is what the title has always proclaimed: life, and nothing else.

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