Our Opinion on Men – Rachel Lang delivers a no-frills tour de force | Cannes 2021
TThe intelligence, candor and unaffected artistry of Rachel Lang’s exceptional film Our Men, or My Legionnaire, is revealed in its note of normalcy. Fear, death, violence, sex, and infidelity are all shown through a clear and cool lens. The action is almost void of dramatic inflection and emphasis, and there are none of the usual intensifiers of music, close-ups, big stages, or monologues. But that doesn’t stop it from being entirely captivating.
Our Men tells the story of a division of the French Foreign Legion on a dangerous and politically delicate mission in Mali in West Africa: a counterinsurgency mission against Islamist groups and an operation of the heart and mind to establish good relations with the local authorities, involving patrols of tense convoys in permanent danger of roadside bombs. While the men witness the action, their wives and girlfriends are at home in army lodgings, going mad with loneliness and boredom.
Lang shows it to us with two couples of different rank. Commander Maxime (Louis Garrel) is a difficult career soldier whose wife Céline (Camille Cottin, from the program Call My Agent) is a lawyer. They have a child and Céline keeps Nika (Ina Marija Bartaité); she is the fiancée of Ukrainian soldier Vlad (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), a promising but anxious and seriously injured young soldier under Maxim’s orders. Not that his temperament counts against him in Maxim’s book; as he puts it: “A worried soldier is a good soldier. But Nika is unhappy because she wants children and not Vlad, and she gets close to a local civilian.
Our Men contains one of the most extraordinary hard cuts I think I have ever seen. In Mali, one of Maxime’s men was killed in an ambush against which he was humiliatingly forbidden to retaliate. Lang’s camera gives us an image of the sergeant’s coffin, kept in the makeshift tent-chapel, surmounted by the tricolor and his kepi, a painting constructed with sobriety, but without obvious tragedy, without emotion. Next, we moved on to a candid close-up of Nika collecting Brazilian wax at home, with a friendly and business-like conversation. Nothing in the film’s rhetoric tells us this is meant to be shocking, or transgressive, or ironic. It’s just like that. Even when things come to a crisis with Nika and Vlad, it makes no sense that this is the dramatic catharsis that everything has been built towards. This is another episode laid calmly in front of us.
Any film about the Foreign Legion has to be compared to the classic Beau Travail by Claire Denis from 1999, its contemporary Legionary version of Billy Budd, with its homoeroticism and mystery, and there are moments here with a bit of Denis poetry. Maxime is seen showering on several occasions, his nudity is not fully shown, and the austere immobility of these moments is like a kind of religious observance.
The drumming of the Legionaries’ feet as they run together (the superbly shaped Maximus able to speak at the same time, stepping back and speeding up to discuss different topics with various men) is hypnotic and obscurely thrilling. And there’s an almost mind-blowing slow-motion wrestling scene that’s surely an allusion to Denis.
I loved Lang’s first film Baden Baden from 2016. It’s even better.