LA SENTINELLE (Arnaud Desplechin, 1992)

Arnaud Desplechin’s unnerving The Sentinel has about it the troubled, ambiguous air of Hamlet, elements of which it relocates and reorders. A boy, raised in Germany where his French diplomat father has just died, is off to university in Paris to study forensic medicine. (He is told, “You take care of the dead.”) What debt does Mathias Barillet owe his father’s memory? (In the case of another character, the question arises regarding a brother’s memory.) What indeed does each of us owe to historical memory? “The Resistance, the [death] camps”: all that, someone notes, is over. Is it? Can we allow that to be? A fellow student of Mathias’s becomes momentarily defensive when Mathias casually asks if he is Jewish. Can certain things ever be “over”?
     Objective (as distinct from character) flashbacks cut into Mathias’s farewell visit to his father’s grave. We see the diplomat (in a Wellesian mode) recount an alleged secret meeting between Churchill and Stalin immediately after the war, where Churchill proposes how the West and the Soviet Union will divvy up each of the East European countries. Churchill in most cases claims 10%. (Big laugh: Yugoslavia, 50-50.) Stalin agrees, all the while intending to take all of everything. On the train to Paris, somehow a mummified head gets into Mathias’s suitcase. Discovering it, Mathias uses the forensic lab to investigate it; whose head is he hiding? The slow process of medical deconstruction is grisly; symbolically, Churchill and Stalin, and the whole Cold War, occupy that head.
     Emmanuel Salinger brilliantly plays the obsessive, socially awkward, virginal Mathias. He resembles Claude Laydu, who played the young cleric in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950). You may recall that that obsessive, socially awkward, virginal boy misunderstood everything he observed and confidently wrote about.

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