Thursday, July 19, 2012

La Bandera (1935)

La Bandera is a great film for impatient people. It hooks you almost as fast as possible. A drunken couple, teetering through the darkened streets of Barcelona, pass a man in a hurry. The girl, joking, tries to dance with him; but he’s in no mood. He exits, and we see blood on her dress. It’s blood from the man’s hands, where they touched her waist. He’s a murderer, and he’s on the run. 

That Pierre Gilieth is a murderer is never in doubt. It’s one of the few things about Gilieth (Jean Gabin) that we know for certain. Other things we know: He is a Frenchman alone in Spain; he has no money and no job; no friends and no woman. He can be easy-going, but he moves frighteningly quickly from frustration to rage—drawing his temper up from some place deeply buried, then directing it with brute force upon the source of his problems. His impulse is it to get away; to be left alone. 

Gilieth joins the Spanish Foreign Legion because they ask few questions. When the registrar asks him one, “Name?”, he replies “Benoît.” When the registrar remarks that the name is too common, and would he select another? he chooses “Gilieth.” The name is a beard. Powerful though he is, Gilieth’s greatest affection is for things he can hide behind. 

Julien Duvivier’s La Bandera feels vérité and artificial all at once, kind of like Gilieth himself. The sets are stagey; the violence equally theatrical, and yet, Duvivier’s camera is insistent—it plunges deep into the sweaty centre of conflicts, pushing through the perfect shot to reach something chaotic, and sometimes, even silly. He gives you the feeling of the moment. The realness of it. 

An anti-hero at best, Gilieth approaches his relationships cautiously. And we, in turn, are cautious about him. He makes friends with fellow legionnaire Mulot (Raymond Aimos) because Mulot has no interest in secrets; he quickly despises Lucas (Robert Le Vigan), because Lucas, though equally friendly, seems intrigued by them. He meets, and suddenly marries, the beautiful dancer Aischa (Annabella); but it isn’t clear which of her qualities attracts him most: her sex appeal, or her ability to draw information from reticent men. 

La Bandera consistently surprised me, because it kept proving to be something other than what I expected. The opening minutes suggest a film about persecution, but while Gilieth is certainly paranoid, there’s nothing here reminiscent of M (1931). It isn’t a war picture, though there is warfare on both a personal and state level. It’s not a comedy, though the barracks in which Gilieth, Mulot and Lucas live are filled with eccentric characters. Because we don’t know the details of Gilieth’s crime—perhaps it was self-defense, or perhaps, an unprovoked, premeditated and brutal assault—we don’t so much fear for him being caught as feel uneasy about what catching him would mean: both for him and the one doing the catching. The man can more than take care of himself, and seems grimly willing to take care of anyone else. 

Lucas, the man who (maybe) knows too much, is just as ambiguous. Gilieth seems out to get him from the start, based on nothing more than a hunch—and some fussy behavior. Lucas seems very protective of his personal documents, some of which Gilieth doesn’t recognize, but Mulot points out that such protectiveness isn’t so strange. It takes someone with Gilieth’s suspicious nature, and perhaps his misanthropy, to transform this into something incriminating. Given how little we know about Gilieth himself, Lucas seems no less noble a figure. 

The point is we can’t be sure. We don’t know these men’s motivations, or their pasts; only how they acquit themselves in the present, right in front of us. The character that we, as audience-members, best identify with is actually Aischa; because, like us, Aischa hasn’t been where these men have been. She can deal only with the faces and personae they allow to be seen. She tends to feel used, and so do we. 

La Bandera’s ending, which is spoiler-rich and so not to be revealed, probably says as much about Gilieth and Lucas as anyone needs to say. While they may be likeable or not in person, either commendable or vile in their personal and professional lives, they are both, in the grand scheme of things, small fish. Their memories, if they’re remembered at all, will be reduced and simplified, abstracted, and refracted through the differing thoughts and feelings of the men and women whose paths they crossed. 

After a great battle in which both Gilieth and Lucas participate, their identities, characters, and fates are merged in one act of official military record-keeping. But the men Aischa knows personally differ greatly from the ones in this account. Both aspects are true, I suppose. So it is for all of us who care what others think. 

Where to find La Bandera: 
A restored print of La Bandera (The Flag) screens Sunday, July 22, 2012, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox—part of the Summer in France programme.

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