This effective French period drama uses World War I as an oblique setting through which to examine the same issues of identity and self-image as Vanilla Sky. The running time is also the same … but the films couldn’t be more different. This is much more introspective and thoughtful, as we follow Adrien (Caravaca) into the first days of the conflict in 1914. But he’s injured and spends the entire war–five years!–in a Paris hospital undergoing reconstructive surgery on his tattered face. He’s carried through his ordeal by a spirited nurse (Azema), a quirky surgeon (Dussollier), the camaraderie and support of fellow patients (Podalydes, Derangere and Renauld), and the memory of a lover (Pailhas). But he’s still not prepared for what will happen when he gets out.
The quality of filmmaking is astonishing–finely detailed period, first-rate acting, lush camera work and most of all a sensitive and provocative examination of the themes. There are scenes here that are emotionally agonising, as well as moments of fresh humor and tender compassion. It’s a remarkable mix that works perfectly, looking at the cost of bravery, the value of sacrifice and most of all the way we see ourselves. We really get into Adrien’s head, and what he sees in the hospital is like a monster movie (the makeup is literally stunning). It gets our brains spinning–we really think about how we would react if this kind of thing happened to us or, more starkly, to someone we love. If there’s any criticism, it’s the usual problem with French films: It does feel occasionally pretentious, especially as it has four separate endings (all of which are telling and clever; so no wonder Dupeyron was reluctant to cut them). This makes it feel rather long, but it’s such good stuff that we don’t mind.