52 Movies: Week 48 - Diên Biên Phú
Diên Biên Phú is a two-hour war film by the French director Pierre Schoendoerffer, released in 1992. It tells the story of the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the decisive defeat of French forces in Vietnam that led to the French abandonment of its client state and former colony, and indirectly to American involvement in the ensuing civil war between Communists and nationalists. There’s a contemporary newsreel regarding the battle at this link. In Schoendoerffer’s film, three plotlines intertwine: the course of the battle itself, a famous violinist rehearsing and performing her farewell concert in the opera house in Hanoi (the capital of French Indochina), and vignettes of an American reporter trying to gain not just the latest information but also an understanding of the background to events. Exposition of context is provided in the scenes in which the American interviews or interacts with a range of figures — soldiers and nationalists, smugglers and opium dealers. He’s the outsider whose need to learn about the situation justifies explanations that for the other characters would be redundant.
The scenes of the battle are unlike any others I have seen. It is in one respect a very unusual sort of war film, quite possibly unique: the director had himself been present at the battle, as a cameraman for the French army’s film service. He saw it as his duty to document the event, but when defeat came he destroyed his cameras and his reels of film, so that nothing he had shot might be of use to the enemy. Almost forty years later he directed a film that would, in a sense, recreate his lost recordings from memory. One of the characters, played by his own son, is even a cameraman for the army film service. Battlefield scenes, whether of combat, or care of the wounded, or of an army chaplain’s field mass, bear witness to his memory of events. If the American journalist is a pretext for exposition, the battlefield scenes are essentially documentary reconstructions. Diên Biên Phú doesn’t fall readily into either of the two typical types of war drama, the glorifying and the anti-militarist, as it shows the anguish and suffering of the soldiers in the firing line quite bluntly and at some length, while also showing astonishing and admirable acts of courage.
Finally, there is the music. If the camera seeks accurately to recreate what Schoendoerffer saw on the battlefield, the haunting score adds an entirely different emotional layer to the experience. The first time I saw the film was on television – it happened to be on, and although I had never heard of the film before I had vaguely heard of the battle. As soon as possible after seeing it, for the first time in my life, I sought out and acquired the soundtrack. I have done the same for two other films since: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012). The composer, Georges Delerue, is apparently very famous, although I had to Google him. Apparently he scored another war film set in Vietnam, Platoon, but I haven’t seen that.
The clip below, from about an hour in, combines all three strands, cutting between the opera house in Hanoi, where the American journalist is in the audience, and the battlefield, where an artillery lieutenant defies an order to spike his guns, instead using them to cover the retreat of his comrades. Although rather low resolution (perhaps best watched on a mobile phone?), it captures many of the beauties of the film. The cinematography is far more stunning than it might suggest. The clip also contains the only explicit cinematic reference I have ever noticed to Newton’s laws of motion (the artilleryman’s “la loi du vieil Isaac”).
It is not a film to be watched for plot, although it does have one, but for the camerawork, the composition of the shots, the music, the vignettes of the sights and sounds of French Indochina in the 1950s, and above all the testimony to the hard-fought defeat in which three quarters of those who surrendered died in captivity.
Dien Bien Phu (Schoendoerffer) par henrisalvador
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.
I really avoid movies with battles like the plague, but this one sounds interesting.
Posted by: Janet | 11/30/2016 at 10:40 AM
I'm not a big war movie fan myself but this one does look fascinating.
Posted by: Rob G | 11/30/2016 at 11:44 AM
Thin Red Line is my big exception.
Posted by: Janet | 11/30/2016 at 11:54 AM
I want to train to become a translator in Brussels!
Posted by: Stu | 11/30/2016 at 12:01 PM
I actually make a point of watching war movies, but this is one I've not heard of. It sounds good and I'm going to add it to my list.
Posted by: Craig | 11/30/2016 at 12:36 PM
Not so easy to find.
Posted by: Janet | 11/30/2016 at 01:53 PM
Hadn't even thought of that. Region 2 import only on amazon.com. :-/
Posted by: Paul | 11/30/2016 at 02:08 PM
It's on iTunes, it seems.
Posted by: Paul | 11/30/2016 at 04:05 PM
The music does seem to be very good (as does the movie itself). Interesting to me that he (Deleures) also did the music for Jules and Jim. I don't remember the music but that was probably the first "art" film I ever saw. I'd like to see it again.
Posted by: Mac | 11/30/2016 at 05:46 PM
I have an all-region DVD player, but I'd probably have to buy the film to watch it. Might be worth it if I could find an inexpensive copy.
Posted by: Rob G | 12/01/2016 at 05:59 AM
We'll all come to your house. ;-)
Posted by: Janet | 12/01/2016 at 06:20 AM
Now THAT would be fun!
Posted by: Rob G | 12/01/2016 at 07:27 AM
I can't imagine life without a multiregion DVD player!
Posted by: Grumpy | 12/01/2016 at 08:24 AM
I never knew there was such a thing.
Posted by: Janet | 12/01/2016 at 09:12 AM
Actually Rob, after having 32 people for Thanksgiving, the phrase, "We'll all come to your house," strikes fear in my heart.
Posted by: Janet | 12/01/2016 at 09:13 AM
It's something I'll have to look into.
Posted by: Paul | 12/01/2016 at 10:01 AM
The multiregion DVD player, I mean.
Posted by: Paul | 12/01/2016 at 10:02 AM
Mine's a Sony -- it was about $40.00 on Amazon. Nothing fancy, and not a lot of special features, but it does the job.
The only weird thing is that the onscreen commands are in Spanish, but I don't use them, and it can be easily reprogrammed to English if that's a problem.
Posted by: Rob G | 12/01/2016 at 10:35 AM
Half my DVDs have always been at least American (when I was in GB) or English (now I'm in the US) so even without a slight taste for French films my DVD collection would be unusable without a multi region player. I'm not a massive foreign language film watcher, but having lived between the US and the UK for so many years, I've got so many DVDs from both sides of the pond that a single region DVD player would render my stock useless.
Posted by: Grumpy | 12/01/2016 at 02:12 PM
I don't think it's ever crossed my mind that I needed one. Not very cosmopolitan apparently.
Posted by: Mac | 12/01/2016 at 03:56 PM
My thoughts also, Mac. I ordered two online once that I didn't realize were whatever region the UK is, so I took them to a computer whiz friend of mine who was able to make a copy, then convert to proper region on another disc which plays in my US player.
Posted by: Stu | 12/01/2016 at 04:03 PM
Seems like I ran into something like that once...can't remember the circumstances but I worked around it somehow.
Speaking of this stuff, does anybody have Blu-ray? I've paid about as much attention to it as to multi-region DVD players. But I recently took the plunge into flat-screen TV and HD and...WOW...I didn't think it would make that much difference but it sure does. Now DVDs look a little fuzzy in comparison to HD. Recently produced TV shows like The Crown in HD are just remarkable--so extremely clean and detailed. Is Blu-ray the fixed medium counterpart of HD?
Posted by: Mac | 12/01/2016 at 05:38 PM
I just got an email from Filmstruck saying that they are expanding to--among other things--Roku in 2017.
Posted by: Janet | 12/01/2016 at 07:18 PM
They were promising that in the beginning. Otherwise I would not have signed up. They're saying early 2017. If it doesn't show up by the end of February I'll probably cancel. I can only watch on phone or computer. I have no interest in the former and limited interest in the latter.
Posted by: Mac | 12/01/2016 at 09:05 PM
Not a fan of Blu-Ray myself. To me it makes everything too detailed and colorful -- makes it all look sort of cartoonish. Plus the hyper-clarity messes with perspective: it's weird to have stuff that's way in the background just as clear as foreground material. It just isn't realistic, and I find it distracting.
I bought the multi-region DVD player in order to watch UK DVD's. I have a friend who splits time between living here and in England, and he's always bringing stuff back with him that's unavailable over here.
Posted by: Rob G | 12/02/2016 at 06:25 AM
I looked it up, and Blu-ray is basically just a disk that has enough capacity for high-def video. So I guess we're talking about the same thing. I love that clarity, though it has occurred to me that it's a little rough on the actors, as you can see every little detail of their skin in even moderate close-up. The perspective thing you mention would have to be a function of the camera's optics, which I don't think has to do with HD per se. The relative level of focus is probably the same, but just crisper throughout.
It was especially striking to me, I guess, since I went straight from an old tube tv to HD.
Posted by: Mac | 12/02/2016 at 08:03 AM