By Merry Low, Ph.D. Candidate, Florida State University
In the summer of 2014 the French government initiated a series of projects comprising La Mission du centenaire de la Grande Guerre. These commemorative acts were examples of the political appropriation of collective memory that demonstrate the extent to which the memory of the First World War remains a subject of historical and narrative priority in France. In his 1989 film, La vie et rien d’autre, Bertrand Tavernier explores the complicated and polemic nature of the first attempts to memorialize the sacrifice of the Unknown Soldier. One can understand the act of commemoration in Tavernier’s film as a palimpsest of three historical periods in France: the memory of World War One, the 1989 Bi-centennial of the French Revolution of 1789, and the Centennial of the First World War, celebrated in 2014. Woven throughout this temporal palimpsest is memory – a “multidirectional memory,” as Michael Rothberg suggests, which “acknowledges how remembrance both cuts across and binds together diverse spatial, temporal, and cultural sites.”[i] La vie et rien d’autre is an example of such multidirectional memory work because it links the memory of World War One to the remembrance of the French Revolution – two seemingly disconnected events.
In what follows, I will explore the relationship between individual and collective memory as it is represented in Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre, and how this complicated rapport questions and undermines the political and ceremonial efforts to forge a national narrative that often contradicts and undermines individual memories. On the one hand, the superimposition of the memory of separate events, which links the French Revolution to World War One, conflates the distinctiveness of each war and in so doing, the blending of these travesties effectively conveys the horrid and gruesome nature of any such conflict, regardless of its historical specificity. All at once, linking these separate events proves to be a source of imagination and creativity, as Rothberg suggests: “producing new objects and new lines of sight”[ii] when considered in tandem. On the other hand, in this palimpsest of war and remembrance, the loss of the individuality of soldiers, ultimately symbolized by the Unknown Soldier, is equally, if not more egregious than the totalizing effects of military combat. Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre certainly provokes its audience to carefully consider the representation and memory of war in the collective psyche. With these considerations in mind, I argue that Tavernier challenges any official attempts, past and present, at unification under a monolithic collective memory through his subversive use of space and choice of marginal figures as his main characters in La vie et rien d’autre.
La vie et rien d’autre (1989)
While La vie et rien d’autre certainly revolves around World War One, the focus of the narrative does not center on the details of various battles and the action of combat itself. The film also does not glorify military generals nor does it laud military tactics in the French army. Instead, Tavernier provides a raw and untold narrative of the aftermath of World War One. In La vie et rien d’autre, Tavernier reflects less on the war of 1914-1918 as an historical event, than on how that event is remembered in the immediate following the conflict.
Set in October 1920 around the battlefields of Verdun, La vie et rien d’autre portrays the war-torn countryside in the fictional town of Vézillé where the mine-infested soil has absorbed some 1.5 million French soldiers. The film zooms in on the fictional Major Dellaplane (Philippe Noiret), whose raison d’être in the military is to identify fallen soldiers and locate those who went missing in action. However, Dellaplane is ordered to locate an anonymous soldier to be buried as France’s Unknown Soldier (le Soldat Inconnu), thus reversing his regular duties of meticulously restoring the identities of the dead – instead of matching bodies to names, he now must find a nameless body to signify all those names for whom no corpse was ever found. Dellaplane challenges his superior general about the nature of finding an anonymous soldier by quipping that if newspapers were to find out about this, then the Unknown Soldier’s mystery would evaporate and lose its symbolism; despite his initial skepticism, Dellaplane accepts his new mission.
In the midst of this frustrating search, Tavernier inserts a somewhat bizarre love story. Madame Irène de Courtil, a rich Parisian looking for her missing husband, François de Courtil (the son of a powerful general in the French army), seeks out Dellaplane, who is overburdened by his impossible task, and demands his full attention in her quest. Meanwhile, Alice Vallier, a younger woman who has just lost her job as a teacher, curiously ends up in the same village, Vézillé, where Dellaplane and his men have set up headquarters for identifying soldiers. Alice, like Irène, is looking for her missing lover, Charles Féron.
Throughout the course of the film, Dellaplane falls in love with Irène and discovers that François de Courtil and Charles Féron are the same man: François de Courtil abandoned Irène, changed identities at some point before or during the war, and fell in love with Alice. Dellaplane decides to conceal this fact from the two women and continues his amorous rapport with Irène. In the end, Irène, who eventually falls in love with Dellaplane, moves to the United States as Dellaplane resigns from the military and moves into his inherited pastoral estate.
The film ends with a voice-over of a love letter that Dellaplane sends to Irène in which his post-scriptum evokes, once more, the loss of men in the Great War, as he concludes with a chilling equation: had all the dead marched, the victory procession through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris would have lasted eleven days instead of three hours. Tavernier instills this sense of loss as Dellaplane, scarred by the tragedy of fallen men whose identities would never be recovered, insists on sharing these details in a simple love letter to Irène. While the inclusion of such romance could be viewed as Tavernier’s pandering to the sentiments of an audience, this peculiar love story is more complicated due to its contribution to the theme of lost individuality and identity, as will be discussed later.
Subversive Use of Space
In terms of cinematography, La vie et rien d’autre is neither innovative nor spectacular. Its cinematic simplicity permits the viewer to combler les lacunes, to fill in the gaps, of official history through its aesthetic opacity, which disturbs viewers’ expectations of a film that is supposed to be about war, where reenactment of actual warfare is present. Instead, Tavernier’s film is rather uneventful and relatively calm. However, there are moments where repercussions of the war are felt, as they occasionally interrupt the dreary landscape.
This type of contrast is evident even in the title sequence where Tavernier alternates between the opening credits with a haunting instrumental score and a still frame of waves crashing in on the shores of the presumably northern French coast. Catherine O’Brien suggests that Oswald d’Andrea’s chilling musical score’s underlying military rhythms with “the sound of the drum beat which allows the undercurrent of war to permeate the atmosphere of peace” creates a contrast between the tranquil sounds of the ocean and the devastating effects of war.[iii] Such an opposition sets the tone for the total devastation of space that results from World War One. This juxtaposition is also present in the ending sequence, which portrays a desolate landscape and Major Dellaplane walking through idyllic fields of grain with the voice-over of his “love letter,” which abruptly concludes with a post-scriptum concerning the enormous loss of lives in the war.
Yet, the majority of the film does not occur on the beaches of the northern French coast; rather, Tavernier has chosen the French countryside as the setting of his film, which introduces a sort of opposition between village and city life – a dynamic of conflict that evokes similar disparities (especially of the economic nature) that factored into the events leading up to the French Revolution of 1789. This type of contrast is most evident in Irène de Courtil’s intrusion into the rustic scenery from her Parisian dwelling, which constantly provokes less than positive reactions from the rural inhabitants. For example, as Irène, in her chauffeured vehicle, passes by a farmer whose horse is plowing his land, the farmer sneeringly remarks that although those rich Parisians may lead comfortable lives, they are all “cuckolds.” The village inhabitants hold an advantage over the urban intruder, Irène, who is completely unaware of their snide remarks.
Tavernier’s use of rural space illustrates his desire to fill in the blanks left out by official history by allowing the paysage to ‘speak for itself.’ In his film, Tavernier creates the physical space for less likely personages of rural France to voice their experience of war. While collective history is one that is often retold through official parades, national monuments, and political speeches – traditions and structures that are normally associated with important cities as sites of national identity – the histories of rural inhabitants are far less glorious in their living in the continual aftermath of World War One. In fact, in the beginning of the film, the aforementioned farmer, who mocks Irène, stumbles across a slightly buried helmet as well as a landmine, which explodes later in the film. In this image, we can conceive of the minefields of rural France, just after la Grande Guerre, as covering explosive germs of memory, which continue to erupt throughout the film. In this provincial landscape of La vie et rien d’autre, it is as if the soil of official history is being loosened for the seeds of the lesser-known war stories to be sown and/or unearthed.
This provincial landscape is decidedly unsettled, and unsettling, in the film. The former battlefields upon which Major Dellaplane sets up his headquarters are constantly on the brink of disaster, as landmines continually go off throughout the film. This creates a sort of continuation of the war whose effects are still being felt throughout the landscape of France. The most disturbing incident occurs in a tunnel in which a Red Cross train, filled with soldiers, hits a landmine. This tunnel later becomes the site of Dellaplane’s main excavation. The few moments in which Tavernier employs handheld camera shots, an effect that renders viewers anxious as they anticipate a pending disaster, occur when soldiers or civilians, looking to identify their fallen soldiers, approach this tunnel. Bert Cardullo argues that the tunnel is the film’s central metaphor with its combination of the “‘resurrection’ of the dead […] and ‘disinternment’ of the war,” which, “from the darkness and dregs of its final station, springs up a lively encampment of relatives, soldiers, coolies, artists, and con men.”[iv] Indeed the tunnel represents the paradoxical nature of the effects of war: that although the war has officially ended, it still continues to wreak havoc on the landscape and its inhabitants.
Before the explosion of the tunnel, soldiers are sitting around their temporary camp eating, drinking, and singing together. One has the impression that all war wounds have been healed as this jolly group of men breaks out into a spontaneous love song. However, this lighthearted moment is disrupted when Dellaplane and some of his workers stumble upon a mine in the tunnel – revealing that the repercussions of war are ongoing and fall short of the glorified status conferred upon war in official history.
Tavernier also emphasizes the makeshift and contingent nature of structural spaces in La vie et rien d’autre. For example, Dellaplane’s “headquarters” consist of a temporary structure divided into offices by flimsy panels. And the disused factory that was owned by Irène’s father-in-law is made into sleeping quarters for people who have come to search for their loved ones. Both of these spaces are viewed from a bird’s-eye perspective through the use of overhead shots, revealing their ad hoc nature – which can be seen as a mirror of the contingent nature of military bureaucracy. What is more, these vertical perspectives reveal the fallacious nature of viewing war from a cold and detached viewpoint, i.e. official memory, instead of experiencing the effects of war through personal encounters with those who have lived through it. One of the most stunning scenes concerning the use of space and overhead shots occurs in this provisional dormitory when, on a Sunday morning, a Catholic mass is held while a small group of musicians gather to rehearse a set of patriotic songs. The priest complains to the loud musicians whose music drowns out his liturgy, but the musicians continue to practice their music, creating a cacophony of sound. This type of clash further underlines the representation of two official versions of history and experience, one pitted against the other, which continually seek to obtain a dominant voice over the other.
Towards the end of the film, the metaphor of the tunnel becomes more nuanced as yet another tunnel, in Grézaucourt, becomes the site of the preliminary ceremony of the Unknown Soldier’s selection. Juxtaposed with the openness of the countryside, Tavernier portrays the underground ceremony in which a soldier randomly selects one out of eight caskets with unidentified French soldiers’ remains to be the Soldat Inconnu. A brief appearance by André Maginot, the French Minister of War lends an official patina to this ceremony as he praises the “anonymous sacrifice and superhuman heroism” of the soldier. After being scolded by his general for being late, Dellaplane quietly taunts his superior by responding that this one Unknown Soldier would reassure the government as they forget the 1.5 million men whose identities had been erased from history because of the war. Dellaplane’s subsequent remarks undergird both his and Tavernier’s mockery of military rituals as subterranean space becomes the guiding metaphor in the film that illuminates the duplicitous and questionable nature of official history.
Telling the Untold Stories
Tavernier continues his excavation of the memory of World War One by choosing to tell the stories of marginal figures. As such, he illustrates an aspect of French sociologist Maurice Halbwach’s theory of the social phenomenon of collective memory. For Halbwachs, individual memories always take shape in a social context; yet each personal memory contains highly specific traces that are unique to each individual. According to Halbwachs, if collective memory derives its force and is able to sustain itself from a group of individuals, it is the individuals of the group that perform the act of remembering; and each one of the members’ unique memory projects a particular perspective onto collective memory itself.[v] This mixture of diverse experiences within the collective creates a more complex and multifaceted memory, which complicates any monolithic historical discourse. These individual memories in constant dialogue with the collective create what Halbwachs refers to as histoire vivante as opposed to histoire écrite.[vi] The former produces a history that is constantly renewing itself whereas the latter is more fixed and uniform, unable to absorb diverse personal memories. Tavernier seems to build on this thought in recognizing the dangers of individual memory being absorbed into a national narrative that promotes a monolithic collective memory. Tavernier’s focalization on Major Dellaplane as the protagonist, as well as his inclusion of female perspectives, serves to underscore his attempts to fill in the gaps of national history as he highlights individual memory.
It is noteworthy that Tavernier does not choose a soldier or former commander as his main subject; rather, Major Dellaplane’s obscure role as the identifier of the dead plots a trajectory that diverges from the well-worn path of war narratives that focus on more prominent and conventional military figures. Major Dellaplane’s experience of the State’s attempts to memorialize the war stands in stark contrast to what is officially remembered from the various parades and monuments that form the authorized collective memory of the nation. By relying on Dellaplane’s individual story, Tavernier imagines a decidedly darker and less romanticized version of the myth of the Unknown Soldier.
Furthermore, Tavernier’s inclusion of women in his film reinforces his desire to recover the hidden experiences of marginal figures that were also ruined by the war. Aside from the two main female characters, Irène and Alice, Tavernier begins his film with two figures riding horses on the beach – one is a nun and the other is an injured soldier. When Irène de Courtil tells her chauffeur to stop and ask these two people where a certain hospital with surviving soldiers is, after giving them directions, the nun comments that her brother “used to love those cars.” This small detail is noteworthy as we can infer that this woman’s brother belonged to the massive number of men who perished during the war and that the war has in some ways scarred the living – the survivors – more than the dead. In fact, when Irène arrives at the hospital where she first encounters Dellaplane, there are several soldiers who have forgotten who they are and are experiencing varying degrees of post-traumatic stress, thus foregrounding the loss of individual identity (in this case, literally) as yet another cost of war.
By weaving together the experiences of Irène and Alice throughout his film, Tavernier highlights the importance of women’s untold experiences of the Great War. Irène’s persistence and determination to find her missing husband are of course admirable, but Tavernier does not idealize his inclusion of this particular female voice. Irène’s refusal to accept her high-ranking father-in-law’s shady business with the German arms industry extends Tavernier’s project of exposing the shortcomings and, at times, corrupt nature, of military bureaucracy, often responsible for the transmission of the official history “war” as it is memorialized at a collective level.
Moreover, Tavernier highlights the lack of experiential knowledge that Irène displays when she comments to Dellaplane, after the tunnel explosion, “it is as if the war never ended.” Dellaplane quickly responds to her that she knows nothing of “true” war. For O’Brien, “[t]he emotional legacy of war is played out in male/female power relations, most notably in the sparring between Dellaplane and Irène […].”[vii] In one sense, Dellaplane belittles Irène’s experience of the war by responding in such a way. Eventually, however, the sophisticated Irène becomes sympathetic as she spends more time in the war-torn village and sees its devastating effects on the lives of others in her own country. In this sense, Irene encounters true remembrance, which does not occur in the officialdom of the city, but rather in the barren fields of the countryside.
As a counterpoint to the feminine experience of Irène, Tavernier includes the story of Alice Vallier, who is also in search of a lost soldier. The first interaction between Irène and Alice occurs directly after Alice loses her job and is angrily leaving the town on her bicycle when she makes eye contact with Irène, who is sitting in the back of her car. Their gaze lingers as the camera emphasizes this visual interchange between the two women. Once again, the economic juxtaposition between the urban, represented in Irène’s chauffeured car, and the rural, with Alice’s bike, is a point of cinematic consideration as the viewer is forced to see this disparity between two social groups. Alice goes on to Vézillé to work in a local café, where she eventually converses with Dellaplane about her lost lover, Charles.
Alice and Irène meet once more at Tavernier’s headquarters and Alice wards off a con man posing as an investigator, who approaches Irène by warning her that he is just trying to steal Irène’s money. From this point, Alice and Irène begin to develop a friendship as the film progresses. After Alice escapes an uncomfortable situation where a young man attempts to force himself upon her, she goes to Irène’s quarters in the temporary dormitory and sleeps in the neighboring bed. In the course of the next few days, Dellaplane discovers that the two women, who often discuss their memories of Charles and François, are seeking the same man. However, Dellaplane keeps this information from them and as they say goodbye to one another, Irène gives Alice an empty locket as a souvenir as they exchange a hug and a kiss. The friendship between these two women based on their shared loss can be seen as symbolic of the female war experience.
But this feminine aspect of Tavernier’s film is no way romanticized. Tavernier allows the viewer to see something that eludes even the characters themselves: that the loss of identity is sometimes a conscious decision brought about by those who want to escape their present situation: this of course being the case of François de Courtil / Charles Féron. For François/Charles, the war, whose nature obliterates identity, created the perfect environment necessary for this type of evasion and appropriation of another identity. In any case, the intertwined nature of the relationship among Major Dellaplane, Irène, Alice, and François/Charles evokes the types of “diverse transfers that take place between diverse places and times,” and people, in this instance, during such acts of remembrance in Rothberg’s concept of multidirectional memory.[viii] Within this intricate web of relationships, one sees a conflation and dissolution of identity and interconnectedness, as characters begin to blend seamlessly into each other, or in and out of one another’s lives.
Yet the most marginal and elusive character of Tavernier’s filmic text is the Unknown Soldier himself. Beyond Tavernier’s film, scholars have noted that the origins of this memorial, in particular, are obscure. According to Carole Blaire, William Balthrop and Neil Michel, the lack of research on the history of the Unknown Soldier’s tomb is stunning: “this research ‘gap’ is not only surprising but quite problematic, given the echoes of interwar commemorative practices and issues up to and in our own time.”[ix] Certainly Tavernier seeks to capture this historical figure, whose “anonymity allowed the Unknown to be a very particular someone to a friend or family member,” that is, according to most national justifications of such a practice.[x] However, Dellaplane’s task of finding an unidentifiable body contradicts his duty to restore to each fallen soldier his lost identity. Whoever lies under the Arc de Triomphe has been denied his identity in order to become, as Philippe Mesnard suggests, “a new symbolic representation that could carry a strong meaning” to fit France’s national narrative.[xi] Although Dellaplane fights for the restoration of this soldier’s identity, in the end, he must carry out his official duty to purposefully forget this soldier’s story. Whereas many view the identity of the Unknown Soldier as a glorification of sacrifice there is an inherent critique of this commemorative act as a celebration of a loss of identity caused by the enormous scope of lost lives during World War One in Tavernier’s film. It seems that what Tavernier mourns the most, through the voice of Dellaplane, is the obliteration of what seems to be an infinite number of individuals, their stories incurred by the Great War, and this subsequent commemorative practice of the Unknown Soldier.
To conclude, in his subversive use of rural space, that reveals the lasting scars and devastation of war on the French countryside, and by giving a voice to marginalized figures such as Dellaplane, Irène and Alice, Tavernier exposes the liabilities of a monolithic and authoritative memory, which often manifests itself in certain national narratives, and thus assumes a narrow version of official history and suppresses individual experience. For Naomi Greene, “it is in [Tavernier’s] films about the past that one senses the most profound tremors of the present.”[xii] Viewed in its contemporary context of the Bicentennial of France, 200 years after the French Revolution, Tavernier’s film serves as a mirror for French society, displaying the multidirectional nature of memory, whose “anachronistic quality” brings together “now and then, here and there,” and which “is actually the source of its powerful creativity, its ability to build new worlds out of the materials of older ones” as articulated by Rothberg.[xiii] The film’s release coincided with national celebrations after a decade replete with political and social tension among various facets of a French society confronted with a diverse mélange of narratives that challenged its official history. Tavernier’s film can also be read as a reflection on more recent narratives that pervade the collective psyche, including, but not limited to, the president of the French Republic, François Hollande’s call for France to reunite under the commemorative banner of World War One. Accordingly, Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre incites us to constantly scrutinize the various political, social, and national narratives which pervade the collective sphere of remembrance.
[i] Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, p. 11
[ii] Ibid, pp. 18-19
[iii] O’Brien, “ ‘Il y a plus inconnu encore que le soldat: sa femme’ ”, p. 394
[iv] Cardullo, “The Wake of War”, p. 478.
[v] According to Halbwachs,“[…] si la mémoire collective tire sa force et sa durée de ce qu’elle a pour support un ensemble d’hommes, ce sont cependant des individus qui se souviennent, en tant que membres du groupe…chaque mémoire individuelle est un point de vue sur la mémoire collective […].”La mémoire collective, p. 94
[vi] Ibid., p. 113
[vii] O’Brien, “ ‘Il y a plus inconnu encore que le soldat: sa femme’ ”, p. 394
[viii] Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, p. 11
[ix] Blair, Carole, et al., “The Arguments of the Tombs of the Unknown: Relationality and National Legitimation”, p. 452
[x] Ibid., p. 459
[xi] Mesnard, “Memory in Progress”, p. 561
[xii] Greene, Landscapes of Loss, p. 99
[xiii] Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, p. 5
Blair, Carole, V. William Balthrop and Neil Michel (2011): “The Arguments of the Tombs of the Unknown: Relationality and National Legitimation” in Springer Science + Business Media B.V., 12, pp. 449-468
Cardullo, Bert (1991): “The Wake of War” in The Hudson Review, 44, pp. 475-484.
Greene, Naomi (1999): Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in Postwar French Cinema, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press)
Halbwachs, Maurice (1950): La mémoire collective, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France)
Mesnard, Philippe (2014): “Memory in Progress” in European Review, 22, pp. 557-565
O’Brien, Catherine (1997): “ ‘Il y a plus inconnu encore que le soldat: sa femme’: Questions of identity in Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre.” In Wolfgang Görtschacher, Wolfgang and Holger Klein (eds.): Modern war on stage and screen: Der moderne Krieg auf der Bühne, (Lewison, New York: Edwin Mellen Press)
Rothberg, Michael (2009): Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, (Stanford: Stanford University Press)