Ode to Cocteau, return to Hôtel des Invalides. The flighty Polish-French Princess (Emmanuelle Riva) hosts one final ball before the Great War, then trades her plumes and furs for a nurse’s habit and hops in with a caravan of ambulances. Getting to the soldiers at the front is trickier than she had expected, so luckily there’s soft-faced Thomas (Fabrice Rouleau), whose last name "is like an open-sesame at the Ministry of War." Burning cities and piles of mutilated bodies await them ("gangrene invaded them like ivy on statues," narrates Jean Marais), Henri Rousseau’s war horse gallops by with its mane on fire -- hardly the adventure the Princess was hoping for. She heads back home, her romanticism shaken, but the young adventurer forges ahead, a moonstruck schoolboy who believes his own uniform and masquerades of heroism. The battleground is as unreal as theater, so that "the child and the spectacle became one." Georges Franju gives the flickering fable a mordant reading, dismay and splendor imprinted in each composition. No Man’s Land in Belgium is a wintry, extraterrestrial terrain of battered trenches and poisoned clouds; turn on a light in the darkness and get a bullet in your head, and yet risky illumination also brings a few seconds of Edith Scob’s face, an angelic vision. The priest forces open a frozen corpse’s mouth and drops a host into it, the old warmonger leaps onstage and literally wraps himself in the flag, "qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons!" Falsification and transformation, the dreamer awakened at last amidst barbed wire; earlier there is Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona for the theme and later there is Malle’s Black Moon for the style. A hand-drawn star shines as brightly as the real thing in the closing cosmos, a Cocteau image seconded by Franju. With Jean Servais, Sophie Darès, Rosy Varte, and Bernard Lavalette. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce