Saturday 9 October 2021

Our Men (Rachel Lang, 2021)

In Christophe Honoré's superb 2007 film Love Songs—arguably its director's finest work—Louis Garrel, in a scene as moving as it was unusual, employed the NATO phonetic alphabet to convey the death of his girlfriend.  In a remarkable coincidence, and for very similar reasons, Garrel also uses the same code, "Delta–Charlie–Delta" ("décédé", meaning deceased), in Rachel Lang's Our Men, where its use is no less haunting.  In Our Men, Garrel stars as Maxime, a French foreign legion commanding officer who's leading a tricky mission in Mali; when one of his men is killed during an ambush by Islamic insurgents, it's down to Maxime to report the death and here, as in Love Songs, Garrel puts his intense features to good use as he grimly relays the news.  

Garrel's turn in Our Men provides a reminder of both the sort of part he's been offered in recent times, and how these roles differ from his work as a younger man; his early appearances in the likes of Honore's Ma Mère and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers saw the actor cast as louche, erratic types, but more recently the tendency has been to match him with relatively upright roles, such as when he played Alfred Dreyfus in Roman Polanski's absorbing J'Accuse.  The steady Maxime is a fairly typical part for the Garrel of today, even if the actor can still rise to the challenge when tasked with channelling his inner weasel, as evidenced in Woody Allen's most recent film, Rifkin's Festival.  But Garrel has done well to avoid the sort of typecasting that once seemed inevitable, and he's always an engaging, watchable presence.  Maxime's wife, Céline, is played by the excellent Camille Cottin, a performer who, like her co-star, has worked with Christophe Honoré; also as with Garrel, Cottin has successfully edged away from her earlier roles, with a recent string of dramatic parts demonstrating a range beyond comedy.  

While Garrel and Cottin are the two biggest stars in the film—which also features Lucie Debay and Claire Denis mainstay Grégoire Colin in supporting roles—their characters make way for a younger couple, Ukrainians Nika and Vlad (Ina Marija Bartaité, Aleksandr Kuznetsov).  The taciturn Vlad is under Maxime's command, and Nika, who has only recently arrived on the army base in Corsica, soon befriends busy, affable lawyer Céline, who asks Nika if she would be interested in babysitting her and Maxime's son; it is through this job that Nika gets to know some of the other legionnaires' wives.  With Vlad away on duty, Nika cuts a rather lonely figure, and even on the few occasions when Vlad returns home, he seems distant and is reluctant to discuss Nika's hopes of starting a family.  Vlad does buy a puppy, however, and this very cute canine does provide good company for Nika as she fills her long days.  But Nika still feels rejected by the absent Vlad, and the welcome attention she receives from another man leads to a rather predictable complication.      

With its focus on the soldiers' partners in general and Nika in particular, Our Men may surprise those expecting to see wall to wall scenes of warfare; while the film does indeed spend some time "over there", the combat never feels especially authentic, so it's probably just as well that the real meat of the story takes place away from the warzone.  Our Men, which screens this weekend at the London Film Festival, is a strong film, but sadly it seems inevitable that its release will be overshadowed by the death of its young star: six months ago, Ina Marija Bartaité was killed when a drunk driver knocked her off her bicycle.  This tragedy occurred ten years on from the untimely death of Bartaité's mother Yekaterina Golubeva, who, as well as starring in Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms and her partner Leos Carax's Pola X, appeared in two films by the aforementioned Claire Denis.  It is not inapt to suggest that Denis' Colin-starring Beau travail—one of the most memorable films about life in the foreign legion—would form a fine double bill with the engrossing, affecting Our Men.

Darren Arnold

Images: BAC Films