Thursday, December 16, 2010

Astruc’s Adriatic Sea of Fire

He was the man who could have been Jean-Luc Godard. Alexandre Astruc was one of the original theorists of the French Nouvelle Vague. While he made a few highly regarded films during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, his later output were largely conventional programmers produced for television or to be dumped into the international market. Recently released on DVD from Pathfinder, Astruc’s Adriatic Sea of Fire (co-directed with Stjepan Cikes) certainly falls into the latter category, but the French language Yugoslavian war film is still of considerable historical interest to cineastes.

Considering it only took the Kingdom of Yugoslavia ten days to capitulate to the Germans, it is easy to see why French filmmakers would have an affinity for the former Balkan country’s wartime experiences. Much like France, Yugoslavia also compensated for its military humiliation by idealizing its heroic partisans.

Indeed, that’s the stuff one officer serving on the battleship Zagreb is made of. Unfortunately, with hostilities against Germany only days old, most of Michel Masic’s fellow officers do not grasp the seriousness of the situation. There even seems to be a high-ranking saboteur aboard. When a critical engine part is damaged under mysterious circumstances, Masic must race against time to find a replacement from the military depot in the process of evacuating. It sure looks like he is being played, but it least it gives him the chance to put the moves on Mirjana, a femme fatale trying to get out of Dodge.

Frankly, Adriatic’s component parts are far more interesting than its unremarkable whole. In addition to the former New Waver Astruc, it also boasts Claudine Auger (best known as Domino in the Bond movie, Thunderball) as Mirjana. While her romantic relationship’s lightning fast progression is a bit silly, she still has a striking screen presence. There is also plenty of vintage hardware, thanks to the Tito regime, which evidently carved out a niche leasing WWII-era military armaments to international film crews.

Still, no one should expect Adriatic to be hailed as a lost classic. While Gérard Barray was a credible French action-adventure star of the day, he looks nearly identical to at least two of his fellow officers. At times, the only way to tell them apart is through dramatic context. It also has that weird, slightly garish color that seems to have been developed for late 1960’s Italian exploitation films. Yet to be fair, Pierre Jansen’s romantic score is quite nice.

Back in the days before streaming Netflix, Adriatic was the sort of movie you might find yourself drawn into late at night for no good reason. As a film in its own right, it qualifies as “distracting,” at best. However, as a collaboration between a faded star of the Nouvelle Vague, a Bond Girl, and Marshall Tito, it ought to be in every institutional collection for film scholars and students to refer to.