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- Reviewed from the 2021 BFI London Film Festival
Not content to make films, director Rachel Lang also made rank. At the age of 19 she was an officer in the French army reserves, responsible for a platoon of 30. Given the forensic detail in her latest outing Our Men, this is hardly surprising. The film hums with the authenticity of lived experience, focusing its attention on the rules, regimes and rhythms that sustain military life.
The men in question are enlisted in the Foreign Legion, which is unique in its acceptance of recruits outside of France, and swearing allegiance not to their country, but the Legion itself. This is how, in Lang’s film, a Ukrainian soldier named Vlad (a laconic Aleksandr Kuznetsov) winds up stationed at a camp in Corsica, shortly followed by his fiancée Nika (Ina Marija Bartaité, who tragically died earlier this year).
Nika is quickly inducted into the ways of wifely duty, and finds counsel in Camille Cottin’s Céline (more muted here than in her role as Andréa in Call My Agent), whose husband Maxime (Louis Garrel) is the Lieutenant of the company in which Vlad serves. Céline, a lawyer, resents the claustrophobic air that percolates around the wives, with their bikini-waxing and wine-tasting gatherings and synced-up periods. Nika, however, throws herself into the role of ‘devoted wife’, literally branding herself with a tattoo of ‘Mon Légionnaire’ on her lower back. Despite occupying herself with learning French and how to drive, as well as babysitting Céline’s son, there is little to do but wait for the man who she has crossed the ocean to be with.
Similar to Sam Mendes’s Jarhead in its study of what happens when soldiers are not at war, Lang’s film is as much about preparing for conflict as it is enduring it. At camp, the men shave, do laundry, practice drills and make calls home. There is a simplicity – and domesticity – to their routine that chafes against the complexity of life when they return home, where their wives expect more than their mere presence (or presents; Vlad implicitly replaces himself with a puppy), they expect love.
Garrel’s Maxime has had more practice at this and slips back into an affectionate relationship with Céline with greater fluidity (Vlad, meanwhile, recoils tighter into himself, as depicted in a loveless sex scene that Nika confesses to Céline “sucked”), but there is still a sense he is more at ease and more himself when giving commands than socialising with his wife’s friends. That transition is made all the more difficult when a mission in Mali goes wrong and two of Maxime’s men are injured. He is prone to glitches in composure, but only because he cares so much. These are, after all, his men too.
Garrel is particularly good in a role less roguish than we are used to seeing him in, and in some respects, this is his film. Cinematographer Fiona Braillon lingers the camera on his face and body as he washes against the backdrop of the desert at dawn or carefully applies velcro badges to his uniform.
Lang displays a talent for depicting different registers of masculinity: Vlad sends his fist through a wall in a flash of rage, whereas Maxime is more reserved, observing his men and how well they might be coping. In its foregrounding of male relationships amid Foreign Legionnaires, Our Men will undoubtedly draw comparisons with Claire Denis’s magnum opus Beau Travail, and certainly in the film’s closing shot, as bare-chested soldiers tussle with one another in faux conflict, there is more than a whiff of Denis. But where Beau Travail is sensual and cerebral, Our Men is precise and taciturn. Which isn’t to say that it’s lacking – Braillon finds beauty in tanks thundering through the desert or uniforms hung out to dry on criss-crossed washing lines – rather it’s imbued with the order of the military itself.
Cutting back and forth between the men and the women, there is a distinct sense of community between each, they banter and gossip, counsel and console, and news always travels between the two, even as communication might falter in individual relationships. A newly expectant wife suddenly gives birth, and before Vlad can tell Nika he might just want the children he had previously said he didn’t, she is discovering life outside of the legion. More than anything this is a film about language and finding a vocabulary for love in a world that subsists on roughly 400 words: Céline rebukes her son for starting to use them, to which he replies “Roger that!”
Is this effective and elliptical drama worth seeking out? Affirmative. Like a soldier in camouflage, Our Men creeps up on you.
30 great films playing at BFI London Film Festival 2021
Unsure where to start with this year’s LFF? All of the films in this selection come with the seal of approval of Sight and Sound critics.