There are war films and then there are war films. The former are of the traditional variety that follow an individual or group of soldiers that form a platoon and train, learn to grow as a team and then suffer the inevitable consequences of battle. The latter follow a different battle plan, pardon the pun. Their interests lie in the more esoteric, psychological aspects of warfare, studying the toil combat takes on everyone affected by it, either directly or otherwise. Robert Morin’s latest endeavor, Les 4 soldats, initially appears to adopt the first of those two identities only to slowly calm its pace down and become a studious character piece.
As explained in the opening narrative, civil war has ravaged the country. When the disproportion of poor people to wealthy people reached an unsustainable extreme, society imploded, with the army siding with the rich. Now, pockets of resistance battalions roam the land, planning their tactics, engaging the oppressors in combat. 4 soldats follows Dominique (Camille Mongeau), Matéo (Christian de la Cortina), Big Max (Antoine Bertrand) and Kevin (Aliocha Schneider) as they earn a long deserved period of rest in the countryside during the summer. Their downtime is somewhat disrupted by the forced inclusion of the younger Gabriel (Antoine L’Écuyer), transforming their quarter into an undesired quintet, thus changing the dynamic.
Premiering at the 2013 Fantasia Film Festival, Robert Morin’s Les 4 soldats is a solemn, quiet study of the internal battles soldiers struggle with rather than the obvious external ones. Guns and grenades can break the physical body whereas the stress, fear and anxiety associated with warfare spark an entirely different sort of battle, one of the mind and heart. The film’s setup wherein the audience is filled in on why a civil was broken out, may feel like mere salad dressing considering that only the first and last ten minutes actually deal with said war directly. Closer observation reveals that it is critical to establishing the band of soldiers the viewer is to observe for the entire film. They are not trained warriors in the traditional sense. That would be the actually army whom the protagonists are fighting against. These people form a ragtag group of fighters for whom the war has already cost so much and for whom the possible outcome is never clear. Their equipment is not as performant, combat has been long and arduous and moral is hitting a low point.
As such, Morin’s picture becomes interested in the quiet, more subtle fight the protagonists are subjugated to. It is a fight they can only win by making choices that ease their minds. Having the majority of the story transpire during a period of rest exposes the characters to the beauty of tranquility, nature and simple gestures reinforcing friendship. All the while, the reality that their time to breath easy is finite and the call beckoning them back to the front can come at any time lurks over their heads day in and day out. The unseeable enemy and what it can do to morale is Les 4 soldats‘s strongest element. The tone never ventures into melodrama either, at least not too often, preferring a more graceful, subdued touch to communicate the pains and pleasures the group experiences.
It also helps that Antoine Bertrand (who proved is chops earlier this summer with Louis Cyr) and Camille Mongeau are in top form in their respective roles. Bertrand, as the lovable Big Max, is completely convincing as an adult struck with some form of mental disability. He is stoutly loyal and a strong companion but evidently not a fully maturated individual. He whines and laughs like a child would, his caprices often infantile. Kudos to Bertrand for not delving into cheap antics to fully realize the role as he keeps the character intimately compelling, not because the viewer thinks Big Max is an amusing freak, but because he is a uniquely critical element to the group dynamic. Mongeau has a completely different role on her hands as the entry point into the story for the audience. She is equally loyal to her new friends yet clearly the group’s most worried, insecure member. She also has the unique task of narrating the film as she is acting out the same scenes she speaks of. Other characters will continue behaving normally within the parameters of the given scene as Mongeau turns to the audience and provides details to her innermost thoughts yet delivers them in the past tense. The effect is somewhat disarming at first yet eventually creates an interesting structure by which a story is told by a participant as it is happening.
For all the film’s strong qualities, it does suffer in some key aspects. Two of the characters, Kevin and Gabriel are never well developed. Gabriel is supposed to be a new force that alters the chemistry within the tightly knit unit, yet their reactions never amount to more than mere annoyance. It is unclear why they are annoyed with him at all for that matter. Equally unclear is even why that character has to be introduced seeing as the movie already has difficulty establishing one of the original members. The most disparaging complaint one can aim however is that even though Les 4 soldats has its dramatically compelling structure, its pertinent themes and two extremely talented actors, it still somehow feels like not much happens. The movie is not even that long, clocking in at barely 85 minutes. Yes, it has a lot of artistic merit from a narrative standpoint, but it also feels like it is constantly playing at the same tempo from start to finish.
Morin’s latest project, seeing that it premiered with only a couple days remaining in the calendar, is certainly an interesting way for the Fantasia Film Festival to unwind. For all the times the festival sells itself on showcasing the outlandishly subversive or hard core sci-fi, Les 4 soldats is a very quiet film about an apocalyptic alternate universe. It does not strike as hard a chord as one would like, which is unfortunate, yet is nonetheless worth checking out for fans of the genre.