The intelligence, candour and unaffected artistry of Rachel Lang’s outstanding film Our Men, or Mon Légionnaire, show themselves in its keynote of normality. Fear, death, violence, sex and infidelity are all shown through a cool, clear lens. The action is almost drained of dramatic inflection and emphasis, and there are none of the usual intensifiers of music, closeups, big scenes or monologues. But this does not stop it from being entirely engrossing.
Our Men is about a division of the French foreign legion on a dangerous and politically delicate tour of duty in Mali in west Africa: a counter-insurgent mission against Islamist groups and a hearts-and-minds operation to establish good relations with local authorities, involving tense convoy patrols in permanent danger of roadside bombs. While the men are out seeing action, their wives and girlfriends are at home in army accommodation, going mad with loneliness and boredom.
Lang shows us this with two couples of differing rank. Commanding officer Maxime (Louis Garrel) is a tough, professional career soldier whose wife Céline (Camille Cottin, from the TV show Call My Agent) is a lawyer. They have one child and Céline gets Nika (Ina Marija Bartaité) to babysit; she is the fiancee of Ukrainian soldier Vlad (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), a promising but anxious and tightly wound young soldier under Maxime’s command. Not that his disposition counts against him in Maxime’s book; as he says: “A worried soldier is a good soldier.” But Nika is unhappy because she wants children and Vlad does not, and she is becoming 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 has been killed in an ambush against which he has been humiliatingly forbidden to retaliate. Lang’s camera gives us a shot of the sergeant’s coffin, kept in the makeshift chapel-tent, with the tricolour and his képi on top, a tableau contrived with sobriety, but no obvious tragedy, no emotional affect. Then we cut to a frank closeup of Nika getting a Brazilian wax back home, with friendly and matter-of-fact chatting. Nothing in the film’s rhetoric tells us that this is supposed to be shocking, or transgressive, or ironic. It is just the way it is. Even when things come to a crisis with Nika and Vlad, there is no sense that this is the dramatic catharsis to which everything has been building. It is another episode calmly placed before us.
Any film about the foreign legion has to be compared with Claire Denis’s classic Beau Travail from 1999, her contemporary legionnaire version of Billy Budd, with its homoeroticism and mystery, and there are moments here with a little of Denis’s poetry. Maxime is repeatedly seen showering, his nakedness not fully shown, and the austere stillness of these moments are like some sort of religious observance.
The drumming of the legionnaires’ feet as they go running together (the superbly fit Maxime capable of talking at the same time, dropping back and accelerating forward to discuss different subjects with various men) is hypnotic and obscurely thrilling. And there is an almost hallucinatory slo-mo wrestling scene that is surely an allusion to Denis.
I loved Lang’s debut movie, Baden Baden, from 2016. This is even better.
• Our Men screened on 15 July at the Cannes film festival