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from the Observer 24 March 2002

A face worth than death

This moving tale of bravery shows how the survivors of war are not always the lucky ones

Film of the Week
Reviewed by Philip French

The Officers' Ward (131 mins, 15) Directed by François Dupeyron; starring Eric Caravaca, André Dussollier, Sabine Azéma

A few weeks ago, reviewing We Were Soldiers, I called the war movie a genre with recognisable conventions and characters. I was really talking about combat pictures, because there's a kind of film dealing with the experience of war that eschews battles and martial excitements and has almost as little to do with the genre as the novels of Willa Cather have to do with the western. The greatest of these, Jean Renoir's 1938 masterpiece La Grande Illusion, might be said to have created the PoW camp genre. The majority of them centre on veterans coping with physical and mental wounds - Marlon Brando, for instance, as the paraplegic in The Men, John Garfield as the blind ex-serviceman in Pride of the Marines.

The Officers' Ward
Buy the book of the movie from Amazon
François Dupeyron's distinguished The Officers' Ward (La Chambre des Officiers), the story of a World War I lieutenant hideously wounded on the Western Front, belongs to this category. Of course, life and the movies being what they are, most of its incidents and dramatis personae will be familiar from other treatments of the same subject - the hero coming to terms with his affliction; the dedicated doctor and the concerned nurses; the fellow patients whose spirits rise and fall; the insensitivity of officialdom; the reactions of his family and friends; his thoughts about the girl he left behind. They are all here, but they come up fresh and deeply moving in a film based on Marc Dugain's excellent novella that was in turn inspired by the experiences of his grandfather.

The picture begins in Paris after the outbreak of war in 1914 when the handsome engineer officer, Lieutenant Adrien Fournier (Eric Caravaca), meets Clémence (Géraldine Pailhas), a free-spirited young woman who is seeing her boyfriend off at Gare de l'Est. Adrien invites her to have a drink at the station buffet where her anti-war sentiments annoy patriotic fellow patrons, and they end up in bed in his small flat. Dugain's novel makes more of her greater experience and sophistication than the film does (she knows Fauré and Edvard Munch), but anyway Clémence is the image of desire and aspiration that Adrien takes with him to the front the following day.

Right from the beginning the film has a sense of malaise, achieved partly by the use of a yellow filter that gives it a sickly overcast feeling. On his first assignment, Adrien rides through the idyllic late summer woods to reconnoitre the site for a bridge he has been ordered to build on the Meuse. Suddenly a German shell falls. His horse is killed and half his face has been blown away. He has lost the power of speech and medical orderlies think him beyond recovery. In the film's only spectacular sequence, the semi-conscious Adrien is driven in a rickety ambulance along straight country roads between endless files of soldiers marching to their doom on the front line. Adrien spends four years in the ward reserved for officers with serious head wounds on the top floor of the Val-de-Grace military hospital in Paris.

Adrien is not a war hero in the sense of receiving his wound in combat. His heroism resides in his courage in confronting his affliction and his sensitivity to the feelings of those around him. At first he can communicate only by writing in chalk on a slate and he becomes the first guinea pig for a concerned surgeon (André Dussollier) and the first surrogate son for the senior nurse, Anaïs, whose own son is serving in the trenches. (The casting of Sabine Azéma as Anaïs inevitably echoes Bertrand Tavernier's magnificent La Vie et rien d'autre in which she played a widow searching for her husband's corpse in the aftermath of the Great War.) We do not see Adrien's face until he himself inspects it, reflected in a mirror after the first series of operations.

An old student friend, now an artist, visits him and after refusing to paint Adrien's portrait feels compelled to volunteer for active service. In a scene handled with commendable restraint, a pompous government Minister visiting the hospital assures Adrien that he will soon be ready to return to the front - 'we need men like you'. Gradually Adrien rejects thoughts of suicide and helps others along the same path. 'We'll pull through,' he and two close comrades decide. They play jokes on the staff (one macabre prank involves a live patient getting into a bed where a nurse is expecting to find a corpse) and the trio dress in their best uniforms to visit a brothel where large sums of money overcome the madame's initial revulsion at their appearance. Towards the end of the stay they are joined by the haute bourgeoise Marguerite (Isabelle Renaud), whose beauty has been shattered by wounds received after volunteering for service as a nurse to make up for the draft-dodgers in her family.

The 1918 Armistice provokes rejoicing in the streets, but for the patients in the officers' ward it means going out into the world to face families and fellow workers, to try to live a normal life. The film's final section, an affecting and unsentimental coda, sees Adrien return to his widowed mother and sisters, have a painful encounter with the lost Clémence at the theatre and gradually experience acceptance and the possibility of love.

Unlike Mel Gibson in The Man Without a Face or Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, Adrien is truly disfigured and the movie does not flinch from its chosen variation on Beauty and the Beast. Like The Elephant Man, it challenges us to set aside our notions of what is attractive and to understand qualities of character, sensitivity, nobility. When shown at Cannes last year The Officers' Ward included a final scene where Adrien achieves marital bliss as in the novel. This Dupeyron has dropped so his movie, though strongly affirmative, ends on a tentative, almost playful note.
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