Saturday, October 5, 2019

Weekend at Dunkirk (Henri Verneuil, 1964)

Henri Verneuil’s 1964 Weekend at Dunkirk has (to a surprising extent) pictorial qualities to match Christopher Nolan’s more recent treatment of the evacuation, with a more personal and haunting overall narrative. It was much remarked how Nolan withheld some basic information about surrounding events for instance by omitting any glimpses of Churchill, but Verneuil does something very similar, dropping his protagonist Julien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) into the middle of the action, leaving no doubt about its momentous nature, but emphasizing Julien's confusion about what’s going on (the most salient point about the British operation is that they don’t want to take the French with them) and his indecision about how best to survive without succumbing to desertion or cowardice. Beneath all the terrific spectacle and impactful incident, there’s something close to lurking black comedy in how Julien keeps finding himself back at the same point on the beach, even as others leave in one way or another (to the point that he’s ultimately the last one left): his conversations with a priest add to the sense of moral inquiry. Julien embodies all the ambiguity of war, intuitively working to strike up a mutually respectful rapport (even, eventually, with an obstructive British officer), but reacting with as much skepticism to an individual who thinks too calculatingly of his own survival as to another who too aggressively brandishes his giant gun: the only soldiers he directly kills are French ones, to save a woman from being raped, but then her subsequent actions have him wondering almost immediately whether he did the right thing. The fact that Catherine Spaak would have second billing in a film about Dunkirk perhaps sums up the commercial friendliness that influences one’s view of Verneuil, but in the end her presence adds more than it detracts, speaking to his consistent ability to create unified, textured works.

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