Review: South Sentinel
- Mathieu Gérault’s debut work is a film noir flirting with social drama which reminds us of the incurable wounds inflicted by war
Exploring the legend of the return of a hero and the difficulties that come with returning to the civilian world, discovering that your idea of what life would be rarely corresponds with reality, Mathieu Gérault’s South Sentinel [+see also:
interview: Mathieu Gérault
film profile] - which is competing at the Bergamo Film Meeting – revolves around Christian Lafayette, who’s more of an antihero. He’s a soldier in the French army who has returned home after a mission in Afghanistan and is wrestling, alongside his comrades, with the various problems associated with reintegration, finding a job and escaping his demons. Alcoholism, addictions to various substances and post-traumatic stress disorder are a frequent reality. North American films about invasions immediately spring to mind, vis-à-vis the Gulf War, Afghanistan and, for older viewers among us, the traumatic Vietnam War, which went on to inspire some of the most talented filmmakers out there. Gérault explained that he looked to the films of Sidney Lumet in order to make his film noir which flirts with the social drama and action movie genres (especially when we’re dealing with someone who keeps an M16 rifle at home). Indeed, shot in a rigorous 1970s America style, South Sentinel is also reminiscent of more recent offerings, such as The Hurt Locker, In the Valley of Elah and American Sniper, but with a touch of the French crime film about it.
Viewers shouldn’t expect any war scenes, however, because the film explores what happens after, shot between Lione and La Rochelle. Specifically, it’s a reconstruction of what really happened during a secret operation which ended in an ambush, wiping out the entire Carmin unit led by an ambiguous yet charismatic commander known as the Father (Denis Lavant, who’ll go down in history as Leos Carax’s actor of choice). On the commemorative plaque for soldiers who have lost their lives, we see a date, 18 August 2008, which refers to the Taliban ambush on the outskirts of Kabul which killed ten French soldiers. In the film (but definitely not in real life), this massacre (also of Afghan children) has its roots in an opium trafficking operation in which the film’s protagonists and a family of gypsies are also involved in back in France.
Canada’s Niels Schneider – revealed to the world at twenty years of age in I Killed My Mother and later in Heartbeats by Xavier Dolan, and recently seen alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in Benoît Jacquot’s Suzanna Andler [+see also:
film profile] – embodies tormented soldier Lafayette perfectly with his “puppy dog eyes”, as his Muslim comrade in arms Mounir sarcastically describes them, a part played by Sofian Khammes (Arthur Rambo [+see also:
interview: Laurent Cantet
film profile]) who occasionally steals the scene with his impassioned performance, although the screenplay (by the director himself alongside Nicolas Silhol and Noé Debré) does entrust him with the overly serious task of illustrating France’s guilty conscience when it comes to integration, not to mention weighing him down with contrived dialogue. Lafayette protects Mounir and his most traumatised fellow soldier, Henri, to the bitter end, and he finds love with a pregnant doctor (India Hair, The Line [+see also:
interview: Ursula Meier
film profile]) who’s treating the latter. In sum, while remaining true to the genre film confines, Mathieu Gérault’s debut feature film touches upon events which have a profound effect on our modern-day world, reminding us of the incurable wounds inflicted by war and of the adverse effects it can have.
South Sentinel was produced by Agat Films in co-production with Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Cinéma and with the CNC’s support. International sales are entrusted to Be for Films. The film is released in French cinemas on 27 April by way of UFO Distribution.
(Translated from Italian)
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