It came as a complete surprise when "Black and White in Color," an obscure selection from the Ivory Coast, won the 1976 Academy Award for best foreign language film overprominent imports like "Cousin, Cousine" and "Seven Beauties."
Now that the movie has begun to reach American art-houses, including the K-B Janus in the Washington area, it's apparent that the Academy's choice was at once creditable and enterprising, even though the official country of origin was misleading and importer Arthur Cohn was afforded yet another opportunity ("The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" and "The Sky Above, the Mud Below" were earlier ones) to inflict a pompous acceptance speech on invited guests and a national television audience.
"Black and White in Color" is essentially French movie, shot on location in the Ivory Coast, which doubles for French and German colonial territories in West Africa during World War I. Since the scenario by George Conchon and director Jean Jacques Annand happens to be an ironic parable about the pitfalls of imperialism, it seems a little unfortunate that the movie had to masquerade as an African production to qualify for Oscar nomination.
The expendable title, which suggests maybe a satirical cartoon on the subject of going to the movies, was someone's substitution for Annaud's "La Victoire en chantant." John Simon, an indispensable fount of erudition on this score, has revealed that the original title was derived from a phrase in a patriotic song by Chenier "Chant du depart," which he characterizes as the French equivalent to "America the Beautiful," Simon translates the relevant phrase as follows: "Victory, singing, lifts the barrier for us."
Having emerged from obscurity, the movie itself may now be in some peril of arousing unwarranted expectations of greatness. It's in the nature of a nice try rather than a satisfying achievement. Too dry, anecdotal and anticlimactic to sustain much dramatic interest, the picture does inspire a certain amount of respect as a first feature with intriguing aspirations and themes.
The story begins at Christmas, 1914, in the sweltering French colonial outpost of Fort Coulais. News of the war in Europe, now several months old, arrives in a belated packet of mail received by Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser, recently seen here as one of the cousins in "Faustine and the Beautiful Summer"), a young geographer who is a first much more distressed to read that his political hero, socialist Jean Jaures, has been assassinated. Against the advice of Fresnoy, who is dismissed as a squeamish intellectual, the other colonials are moved to tardy patriotic fervor and organize an expeditionary assault on the neighboring German fortress.
This heedless military adventure, led by a doleful, unaggressive non-com, Bosselet (sad-faced Jean Carmet, who played the father in "Don't Cry With Your Mouth Full" and the apologetic lover in "The King of Yvetot," the last part of "Le Petit theatre du Jean Renoir"), who has no combat experience, ends in ignominious defeat. The French colonials, who had marched out with their hastily recruited black infantry as if they were going on a picnic, return in shame and fear, anticipating reprisals from the victorious Germans. In desperation they turn to Fresnoy, who reveal a timely instinct for leadership as well as a taste and aptitude for military dictatorship that belie his mild-mannered personality and pacifist sentiments.
The premise has better possibilities than Annaud has either the resources or techniques to exploit. The idea of a remote group of colonials talking themselves into a military fiasco seems an amusing starting point, and the twist of turning the most intelligent and sensible member of their group into the most dangerous latent imperialist of them all is unusually astute.
However, the story isn't constructed in a way that might capitalize on Fresnoy's ironic emergence as a disturbingly capable leader. The dramatic climax is reached when the French colonials are routed on the battlefield. Fresnoy rises because of this fall, but there's no payoff once he has risen. On the contrary, the story just dribbles away, leaving one uncertain if Fresnoy is a personality to be reckoned with or the same unobjectionable youth we encountered at the outset.
Something a little more decisive ought to result from Fresnoy's ascendance. Although the movie begins with Fresnoy as an intimate character - we hear passages from his letters, in which he makes observations like "Africa is a pastoral place with peasants like home . . . the only danger is boredom and the acquaintance of compatriots" - he becomes as distant to the filmmakers as he is to his subordinates in the later stages. Spiessel does his best to express the depths of self-esteem and ambition circulating beneath the shy surface, but Annaul and Conchon haven't created a sequence of events compelling enough to make his transformation powerful, like the change in Al Pacino in "The Godfather."
Annaud's background is a mystery to me. "Black and White in Color" couldnot have been an easy project to begin, sustain or complete, and it demonstrates a rather unusual taste in subject matter as well as a certain deftness. At the moment Annand seems to be hampered by a slightly retrogade tempo, a weakness for ironies that are sometimes too apparent and complacent and the inability to dramatize his ideas with sufficient intensity or impact. Annaud's parable [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] the kick of a richly detailed, ambivalent imperaialistic parable like "The Man Who Would Be King." It's a promising sketch that one would prefer to see transformed into a amazing likeness.