Life and nothing else on France 5: why we must review this masterpiece by Bertrand …

Do not miss the broadcast on France 5 of “La Vie et rien autre”, Bertrand Tavernier’s masterpiece carried by a masterful Philippe Noiret. A film which was historically the first to evoke the search for the missing of the 14-18 war.

Works having for subject or backdrop the First World War, this is not what is missing: The Paths of Glory, Captain Conan, Gallipoli … Great films, certainly.

But this time we will favor another masterpiece: La Vie et rien autre, by Bertrand Tavernier, released in the year in which France celebrated with pomp the Bicentenary of the French Revolution. A work in many ways overwhelming, which will obtain 9 nominations for the Césars, and crowned the filmmaker’s favorite actor, the immense Philippe Noiret, with the second César for the best actor of his career, 14 years after that obtained for The old gun.

To our dear departed …

“The starting point of the film, I believe, was reading a preface to a book by Didier Daeninckx, in which he mentioned the number of missing after the war of 14-18” remember Bertrand tavernier, in an interview given in 2001 on the film. “Figures that I checked in the Quid. Something in the 350,000 missing and forgotten identified in the immediate post-war period. I was bewildered. I asked myself” what was a disappeared, is that found? “. From there, the idea is to develop a story about people who are looking for the missing. Another question also titillated me: how did we find the unknown soldier that we had placed under the Arc de Triomphe? “

The filmmaker then turned to Jean Cosmos to co-write the screenplay. This author known to be the lyricist of Yves Montand, of the Jacques Brothers, but also a writer of plays and scriptwriter for television, is rejected by the cinema. “I chose Cosmos […] after having seen some of his telefilms “, remembers the scenario writer. I found that the historical situation was exposed with a great force (…) I had said to myself how the cinema can it deprive itself of someone with a so great imagination “ continues Tavernier.

An unprecedented subject

At the time in France, no one had yet written on the subject that should be addressed Life and nothing else. “We left on virgin ground” recalls Tavernier, “with a certain number of details that Jean went to find from the military burials service, the Red Cross service, how we identified the remains of the missing, etc …”.

This is how little by little Tavernier came to imagine with Jean Cosmos the character of Commander Dellaplane, admirably played by Noiret, whose mission – almost impossible – to identify and find the missing in the war, so that families can mourn.

In short, “Put a name on a figure, put a figure on a name” as he says himself. In doing so, he will “to preserve a memory that we nevertheless wish to destroy” explains the filmmaker; “because everyone wants to forget these 4 years of horror. The watchword for politicians and the military is amnesia. The whole drama of this gigantic butchery is this attempt to hide it behind a symbol, that of the unknown soldier “. The character played by Noiret also has a terrible and explicit sentence about it: “The Officials, that reassures them, the story of the unknown soldier. They had 1.5 million men killed, and we will only think of one”.

“Life is hard…

Despite the interest of a subject that has never been treated in cinema and so strong, financiers and broadcasters refuse to invest in it. Only René Cleitman, film producer for the Hachette company, gets carried away with the script (“It was admirable, I couldn’t let go of it anymore”), but he still cannot make ends meet. Bertrand Tavernier must fight as for a first film. Even the television channels look gloomy: they don’t see this film as a good prime time program. “They all thought I was making a movie about death” Tavernier will say, “when in fact, all the characters are relearning to live!”

Little bear

Technicians are paid at the union rate, production (Little bear) overwhelmingly waives rights and percentages, and Philippe Noiret puts his stamp in participation. It must also be said that the subject of the film finds a particular echo in him: his father fought in the war of 14-18, and, surviving, ended up in the rank of lieutenant. It is besides the decorations of his father that he wears in the film; it is to say the affect which the actor puts in his role. The film is shot in eight weeks between November and December 1988, in the cold and bad weather of Lorraine.

To feel alive above all

Tavernier’s film sheds light on a terrible reality. Bloodletting, France paid a heavy price during the Great War: 1.4 million soldiers killed or missing, more than 4.2 million wounded soldiers, 300,000 civilians killed. Years later, even though we spoke of the 1914-18 war as “world War One”, the task of identifying the missing has never been completed.

Thus within the Ossuary of Douaumont, located near Verdun, 130,000 remains of French and German soldiers rest. Anonymous soldiers, whose identities we have never been able to find. Commander Dellaplane’s task in the film is as magnificent and poignant as it is derisory.

In the aftermath of the war, a whole culture and funeral rites were set up. Monuments to the dead are erected in 37,000 towns to salute the sacrifices of men who have fallen on the fields of honor. The rare sculptors who survived the war experienced a new golden age and made their fortunes. It is, moreover, as Bertrand Tavernier reminds us, the beginning of sculpture on an industrial scale, so great is the demand.

We make family pilgrimages to the very places of the fighting, to alleviate their suffering and find answers that will never come. We are even witnessing a clear revival of spiritualism, in an attempt to communicate with the loved one who died too soon. One of its most ardent practitioners was Arthur Conan Doyle: inconsolable, he indeed lost his son, his younger brother and two nephews during the war …

With more than 1.5 million admissions, Life and nothing else is the second biggest public success of Bertrand Tavernier after Coup de torchon at the time, which had gathered more than 2 million spectators in 1981. Thirty-two years after its release, the strength of the film is still there, intact. It is the mark of masterpieces.

Life and nothing else, broadcast this evening on France 5 at 8:55 p.m.

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