Alain Resnais – most famous for his early French New Wave film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1966) and the impenetrable masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad (1961) — also has the ability to craft an astute political drama: La Guerre est Finie (1966). Sadly, in part because of the dated political situation, La Guerre est Finie has been overshadowed by Resnais’ earlier films and documentaries. Assisted by the wonderful cinematographer Sacha Vierny (Last Year at Marienbad) and writer Jorge Semprún — who wrote Costa-Gavras’ masterful thriller Z (1969) — Resnais constructs a deliberately paced, well acted, and compelling action-less psychological thriller.
The Plot (spoilers)
The year is 1965. Diego Mora (classic Yves Montand), an aging Spanish Communist, is fighting against the Franco regime, urging student strikes, circulating pamphlets, and smuggling explosives. A series of arrests occur and Diego is forced to flee across the border into France. Diego takes on the disguise of the collaborator Sallanches and due to the quick thinking of the daughter of the real Sollanches, Nadine (the beautiful Geneviève Bujold) passes across the border without detection. Diego heads to Sallanches’ house to return his fake passport and momentarily falls for Nadine — who’s also involved in anti-Franco activities.
Diego meets with fellow Communists to discuss the situation in Spain and discovers how out of touch they are with the reality of the situation. Diego knows first hand that there’s no imminent general strike and the populace is generally ambivalent. His fellow communists accuse Diego of “having lost perspective.” Diego meets with his mistress, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin — famous for her roles in many of Bergman’s masterpieces) and she expresses her love, desire to have Diego’s child, and even her willingness to follow Diego back into Spain.
Diego, grounded for his “lack of perspective” is informed when another operative goes missing that he needs to return to Spain. Nadine learns of a trap for Diego and Marianne is sent to warn him. Fin.
La Guerre est Finie is less about the mechanics of being a revolutionary and more about the psychological aspects of hiding one’s true identity. Likewise, the film explores the theme of a new generation of revolutionaries taking over the reins of the first generation. Diego is exasperated by the young firebrand communist organizations in France who have no idea what the environment is like on the ground and dare to lecture him on Lenin! At the same time he seems resigned to his dwindling importance.
The exploration of Diego’s confused/brooding/loving character is by far the central purpose of the film. We never see Diego performing his revolutionary activities — instead, he comforts the families who have lost members in Franco’s purges, and engages in the maintenance of his various facades (doctoring passports, hiding documents in toothpaste etc). This is not a glamorous occupation. And it his here that Resnais really shines. The “Deglamorized Actuality” of undercover work is personified by the character of Diego, while perspective of those who believe it’s altogether different is exemplified by the interaction of Nadine (and her interaction with Diego). Nadine is an enthusiastic Communist who is evidently quite intelligent — she virtually idolizes Diego (and it takes her about three seconds to get into bed with him). At the same time that the usefulness of Old Guard is falling by the wayside they are being mythologized.
La Guerre est Finie is for the most part beautifully filmed. Resnais’ use of montage is spectacular. Here, short take montage is used to further explain the plot (scenes of other revolutionaries mentioned in the dialogue), and occasionally to flash-forward and flash-back. This technique is not always very clear cut and the audience has no time to dwell on the images the quickly pass before us. This adds to the films general ambiguity yet simultaneously reveals more about the thoughts of Diego. Another viewing is definitely required to understand the nuances of this technique. On the whole, the plot is slow and methodical and these montages are welcome interludes of great beauty.
This film is far from flawless. The love scenes are annoying and silly. The filming of Diego’s love scene with his mistress Marianne is a particularly egregious example. Unlike the spectacular visceral feel of the tender sensuality revealed by the closeups of hands, skin, nails, limbs in Hiroshima Mon Amour, here the background music is so corny (voices eventually joining in harmony) that all the aura of the scene is completely lost — replaced by our giggles. Likewise, both female characters are somewhat shallow and Marianne mostly talks about how she wants Diego’s baby. Jorge Semprún’s screenplays are never that adept at characterizing women — for example, there’s a grand total of three minutes of screen-time for female characters and virtually no dialogue for them in Z (1969) . However, these flaws do not detract too much from the film.
All in all, La Guerre est Finie is definitely worth the watch for any interested in the French New Wave movement, Alain Resnais, well-filmed and deliberately paced psychological dramas. But, don’t expect action or much emotional impact.