Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Cannes 1984: Fort Saganne, Three Hours Without Drinking

Third text of our Cannes 1984 series. First film review. 

Fort Saganne, Three Hours Without Drinking 

First French film shown (out of competition) for the opening of the 37th Cannes Festival, Fort Saganne by Alain Corneau. A big budget chasing a big subject. The camels are full of talent.

Fort Saganne, a French film out of competition, was without a doubt the film of the day. Because it was the only one. It’s an honest film, decently made and rather bad. Let’s say “not entirely bad, but inexistent” to be kind. Otherwise, it’s the most expensive French film (says the advertising for the film): both “Saganne of Arabia” and “Apocalypse Yesterday”. Yet – every cinephile knows this – the more expensive a film manages to be, the more it is condemned to be but about one topic: failure. 

Fort Saganne is the story of Charles Saganne, a small peasant from the Ariège region who becomes a hero of the conquest of the Sahara Desert between 1911 and 1914. Like any hero, Saganne is manipulable and empty, driven by the sole logic of being ever more heroic even as the reasons for heroism go missing. The making of Fort Saganne, the film, naturally reflects this scenario: the idée fixe of a producer (Albina de Boisrouvray) leading to a gamble on an actor (Depardieu as Saganne) and the know-how of a safe pair of hands (Alain Corneau). The era where films were “big” by virtue of the importance of their subject (from Griffith to Cecil B. DeMille) is long gone. Today, big films exist only to deploy incredible logistics for our very eyes at the service of no particular thought process whatsoever. One could even say (not without some sadness) that if Corneau were like Hawks (or Hathaway, let’s say), meaning a filmmaker nurturing no bad conscience in regards to the role of the white man in non-white continents, his talent would be given free rein and the battle scenes – which he manages best, by far, in Fort Saganne – would take on their full meaning. It is the paradox of left-leaning Americanophile cinephiles when they become filmmakers. 

This film lasts three and a half hours (it’s long). So we had plenty of time to ask ourselves: what’s its genre? Watching Fort Saganne, I found, one after the other, a retro film on the French colonial saga, a meditation on the theme of the desert, a film on military propaganda and a (Conradian) reflection on the idea of failure at the heart of any human endeavour. 

I saw them pass one by one, and I saw clearly that Corneau and Depardieu would be sad at the idea that one might believe them incapable of dealing with these subjects. But in the end, there is nothing. And “nothing” is very difficult to film.

We feared the return of the colonial saga; with Spahis, Méhari jeeps, fraternal tribes, French flags and all this barely repressed fantasy, with its hot sands, scarves flapping in the wind and never satisfied camels. But it’s clear that the filmmakers have bypassed such a film and introduced some psychology (the relationship between Saganne and Colonel Dubreuilh, played by Philippe Noiret as a hardened dinosaur), whereas a reassertion of the old colonial good conscience of France would have shocked. 

We feared that the theme of the desert would be sprawling; surpassing oneself, experience of the limits, endurance and solitude, truth at the corner of every oasis. All this tempting mythology is set aside, reserved for secondary yet credible characters (R. Dumas, H. Girardot, etc). Saganne’s earthy roots prevent him from getting lost in metaphysical sands, and during his African adventures, he discovers no truth. He is not an intellectual like Colonel Lawrence but a courageous soldier who wages war where he is told to wage war, without ambitions (he harbours some for his younger brother, but will be disappointed), simply confronted with other soldiers, some with a lot less integrity than him. 

We also feared that a film on manipulation might be a bit facile. Destined to serve, Saganne also serves strategies that he doesn’t know how to use to his advantage. When Dubreuilh sends him to Paris as a “hero” in order to influence public opinion and continue the war in the Sahara, he understands that he is being used and ridiculed. But the film is not in the vein of post-modern Westerns (Altman) or post-spaghetti Westerns (Leone) with their sarcastic reflection on heroism that becomes legend, legend that becomes an image, and the image that becomes a mere pawn on the political chessboard. 

Remains the Conradian meditation on failure. It doesn’t really happen. Saganne, in the end, obtains many things (the woman he loves, the Legion of Honour) and when he dies in a bomb crater in July 1914, it is without a sense of fate or irony. Moreover, it’s clear that if Depardieu hasn’t yet reached a point where he can wink at the audience (like a Morfalous-style Belmondo), he cannot be seen playing a character with suspicious or negative values anymore. At this level, it’s the film’s budget that decides this.

So there is an alignment between the way Corneau films, the way Albina de Boisrouvray produces and the way Depardieu “composes” his character. The only risks they take are related not to the subject of the film, but to shooting conditions (that we imagine to be epic, complex, heroic, in beautiful, faraway and natural Mauritanian settings). Otherwise, there is nothing. Nothing to report. But I did say that “nothing” is difficult to film. This “nothing”, this profound indifference of academic filmmaking towards anything it touches, this way of controlling everything but filming nothing, sometimes works as it is. Obviously not in the ridiculous episodes with women, rarely in the desert landscape (the desert is not always that decorative), but a lot in the battle scenes (Omar’s well-defended attack and the war trenches at the end are beautiful pieces of filmmaking) and infinitely with the camels. 

These beasts, often handled cavalierly in cinema, are in themselves film enigmas. With their pitiful screams, their painful tendency to fall on their knees, their rolling hump, their phallic neck and their general appearance of a global gag, they sow the seeds of trouble and irony that Saganne and his fort so sorely lack. 

First published in Libération on 12-13 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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