Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Commandant’s Conscience: Les Milles

Les Milles: The Train of Liberty
Directed by Sebastien Grall
Synkronized USA

French honor was badly tarnished by the actions of many during World War II, particularly those in Vichy who claimed most vociferously to act on its behalf. Especially troubling were the refugees they blithely turned over to the conquering National Socialists. However, one French commander has different notions of honor in Sébastien Grall’s Les Milles: The Train of Liberty, now available on DVD.

While still waging war against the Germans, the French rather conveniently confined all German and Austrian refugees, both Jews and political dissidents alike, in internment camps. By a twist of fate, the camp at Les Milles happened to host a disproportionate number of celebrated artists, writers, and scientists, including painter Max Ernst, novelist Leon Feuchtwanger, and historian Golo Mann, the son of novelist Thomas Mann.

As reserve officer Charles Perrochon takes command of the Camp des Milles, it is unclear which will fail him first, his country’s defense or the lungs that were irreparably damaged during WWI. Like the rest of the men serving under him, Porrochin finds it distinctly distasteful to babysit a bunch Germans, given the current circumstances. Yet his honor demands minimum living standards be maintained in the camp, and he visibly bristles when a mysterious American reporter suggests France might sacrifice his internees to the invading Nazis. Much to his regret though, her concerns quickly prove prescient.

With France crumbling and his lungs closing, Perrochon’s honor dictates a rash course of insubordination. With the help of his reluctant officers, the old commandant requisitions a train in a desperate attempt to shuttle his prisoners to Marseille, where hopefully a freighter will take them to free Morocco. Of course, by this point the fog of war is getting pretty thick, playing havoc with Perrochon’s largely improvised plans.

According to Milles’s end titles, Perrochon and his train have been largely overlooked by history. This also seems to be true of google, which only retrieves information of Grall’s film for searches on Perrochon and the Les Milles camp. As portrayed in the film, the camp commandant is indeed a laudable figure of integrity. Yet as Perrochon, Jean-Pierre Marrielle still creates a convincingly human character, nicely avoiding the trap of coming across as either a saint or a martinet.

Marrielle also gets effective support from some top French character actors, including Philippe Noiret as his high-living general and Jean-Marie Winling Garraud, the brooding camp doctor with an equally pesky conscience. Milles is also notable for an early screen appearance by the French-speaking Kristin Scott Thomas as Mary-Jane Cooper, the troublemaking American journalist. Unfortunately, aside from the token hot-head, the exiles are largely interchangeable stock characters of the dignified intellectual variety.

The actual Camp des Milles was in service several years beyond the timeframe of Grall’s film, ultimately serving as a transit hub for inmates en-route to concentration camps. Grall’s screenplay might let the Vichy Regime off a bit easy, but it resists the temptation of saccharine sentiment and cheap emotional uplift, creating an intriguing character study of a man of honor. Now available on DVD, Milles is a fascinating attempt by a French filmmaker to take stock of the Vichy era and a reasonably absorbing wartime drama.