The Germans have already invaded France. In the winter of 1941, in a village in the Jura Mountains, the Loue River divides Free France and Occupied France. The bleak grayness of Jean Rabier’s immaculate black-and-white cinematography in writer-director Claude Chabrol’s La ligne de démarcation expresses the sadness of the French people, and the defeatism of some, such as Pierre, the Count de Damville (Maurice Ronet, superb), a military officer just released by his German captors. But just as the river divides Unoccupied France and Vichy France, it also divides the attitude of the people: Pierre’s English-born wife, the Countess de Damville (Jean Seberg, acting amateurishly—the film’s one weakness), maintaining hope that France can reverse its defeat, aids Resistance fighters.
This tense, engrossing, unsentimental film juxtaposes activities of the Resistance with activities that draw our ire rather than admiration: a smuggler of people who are desperate to escape Occupied France; he exacts for his assistance everything they own. A Jewish family perishes as a result of his inhumanity. Poetic justice: he is ultimately forced to dig his own grave.
Perhaps the highest value of the film, though, is the density of its communal portrait—the interrelatedness of its inhabitants. For the most part, it is an army of civilians living their diminished lives and keeping hope alive. The film’s finale is immensely moving. At the same time, it restrains itself from employing the cliché that the outcome of the war provides. These people are defiant, not triumphant.
I recently wrote that another Chabrol film is “inhuman”; not this one: it is engaged and committed, real and humane.
Perhaps its authenticity comes from its source: Colonel Rémy’s, that is, Gilbert Renault’s, memoir Mémoires d’un agent secret de la France libre et La Ligne de démarcation.
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