Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Review – J’Accuse

December 15, 2008

J’Accuse – France, 1919

It’s a somber fact that many of those who have perished in war throughout history have greeted the start of armed conflict with thunderous applause and overwhelming enthusiasm. Perhaps every generation of men longs for its opportunity to make a difference, to prove its mettle on the battlefield. On Sunday, August 2, 1914, many of the young men in France became instantaneously overjoyed when news of France’s declaration of war became known. This moment is perfectly captured in Abel Gance’s impressive 1919 film J’Accuse. As word of the start of the First World War spreads, crowds form and make their way toward local government offices. As the crowd moves, children hear adults spreading the news and wonder aloud, “What’s war?” Reaching its destination, the crowd feasts its collective eyes on an official notice, an order of general mobilization. Young men cheer and begin singing the national anthem, the elderly are mostly shocked, and tears fall from women’s eyes, as their minds most likely turn to the fates of their sons, husbands, and brothers. These are sentiments lost on a drunkard named Francois Laurin (M. Severin-Mars). “At last!” he proclaims. Meanwhile a young poet named Jean Diaz (Romuald Joube) has a different reaction. Stunned, he stumbles back a little, shaken by the magnitude of the announcement and its potential ramifications.

By this point in the film, these divergent reactions come as no surprise to viewers. After all, we have seen ample evidence of Francois’ belligerence. This is a man who sees nothing wrong with physically striking his wife Edith (Marise Dauvray), trying to force his dog to lick blood dripping from a dead deer, and firing warning shots in Jean’s direction when he thinks he is getting too close to Edith. We have also seen that Jean views the world very differently that Francois. A pacifist who writes poems about nature and a utopian world, Jean is the kind of person who mourns the death of a bird and empathizes with those who suffer in their daily lives. Edith Lauren is one of these people. And because of that, it would be easy for viewers to initially confuse J’Accuse with other cinematic love stories involving a love triangle.

Yet J’Accuse is not your average love story, for at its heart, J’Accuse is about the horrors of war. In one of the most interesting and affective scenes that I can recall, Gance shows us a series of interlocked hands on the eve of deployment to the frontlines, a husband and a wife, a mother and a son, a father and his child, a man and his girlfriend. The effect is quite powerful, for in each of these tender moments there is a story that we will never know, one that has a high probability of ending in heartbreak and sorrow. Later in the film a character disobeys a direct order and undertakes a potentially deadly mission not because he believes he is the better soldier for the job but because he has learned that the person he was supposed to send loves Edith as much as he does. This discovery leads one of them to seek the other’s forgiveness for loving Edith, and the two of them promise to talk about her often. This is all the more amazing given the fact that at this point in the film neither of them knows Edith’s whereabouts, for Edith was captured by the Germans after Francois forced her to go to his parents’ house so that she would be far away from Jean.

J’Accuse has one of the most interesting structures of any film I’ve ever seen, for what would normally be the climactic moment of the film is in reality just the end of the second act. The third act is as unexpected as it is stunning, as confusing as it is revealing. In it, the reasons for war itself are questioned, the actions of those whom soldiers leave behind are exposed, and war takes its tragic toll on optimism and sanity. In an amazing reversal of fortune, four years of sacrifice have turned a brute into a man and a man of conscience into a man of conspiracy and rage. In the end, war’s toll is completely devastating, robbing the deceased of second chances, families of desired moments with loved ones, and little girls of potential fathers. The movie forces us to ask if these sacrifices are worth it. (on DVD)

4 stars

*J’Accuse is in French with English subtitles. While the subtitles are boxed, they are white. Because of that, there are a few moments in which they are difficult to read.

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