Bertrand Tavernier's "Life and Nothing But" does a lot of things well. It's a textured story, beautifully told, that captures the spirit of post-World War I France where it is set; it's brilliantly, even spectacularly acted; it's handsome, intelligent and even, on occasion, richly moving.
So why do I feel so indifferent to it?
The answer lies in what's missing, rather than in what's shown. Based on a script by the director and his collaborator, Jean Cosmos, "Life and Nothing But" examines that period just after the war, when the moment for heroism has passed and what's left is the messy job of cleaning up. Its central character is an officer with the War Casualties Identification Bureau -- a bureaucrat named Dellaplane (Philippe Noiret) -- whose thankless and nearly impossible task it is to account for the 350,000 French who are missing in action.
Poring over his ledgers, he sets about this labor with an obsessive meticulousness that borders on the comic. He knows this is the part of the war that no one cares about, least of all his superiors, who would prefer that the books be closed as quickly as possible. His dedication doesn't impress them, it annoys them, but Maj. Dellaplane sticks to his grim duties, primarily for the sake of the families of the missing, who roam the battlegrounds and search the field hospitals for their loved ones.
The picture revolves around the relationship between the major and two women, a wealthy Parisian and a provincial schoolteacher who are searching for their lost mates. Irene (Sabine Azema), with her furs and aristocratic beauty, assumes she will be treated with all the deference due her station. Backing her up is her father-in-law, a powerful senator who has agitated both in the press and in the halls of government for swift resolution to the problem of the MIAs.
Understandably, Dellaplane takes unkindly to these pressures, assuring the lady that her case will receive only the "1/350,000th of my attention" that it merits. At the same time -- and for reasons that have more to do with his attraction to her than the worthiness of her claims -- he goes to great lengths to brush aside the pesky bureaucratic hassles that get in her way. By uneasy steps, they build a kinship that blossoms into love, though the major, who is a careful man, is unable to act upon his newly discovered passion at the moment when it most counts.
The movie's greatest problem may be that it too greatly resembles its main character. What the picture lacks is emotion; a veil of malaise hangs between us and the film. And while this may have been something like the mood of postwar France, it feels more generalized than that, more like empty attitudinizing.
The characters don't emerge with much vivacity, either. The teacher, Alice (Pascale Vignal), is wanly conceived; she's included in the story, it seems, only to allow for a rather predictable plot twist late in the film. Noiret makes an engagingly rugged camera subject, and though he gives an authoritative performance, it's not a terribly penetrating or affecting one. Except for some bawdiness early on and the occasional flash of irony, he mopes his way through the picture.
Azema, on the other hand, is a revelation, especially early in the film when Irene vents her haughty indignation at the incompetence of the army bureaucrats. She brings a fierce sexuality to the part, and beneath that a sense of elegant, love-starved weariness. This is strong, furied acting from a ravishingly gifted actress.
In "Life and Nothing But," Tavernier works with classical restraint that translates most often as aloofness. The movie's style allows for everything except a freely expressed passion. And without it, the film, whatever its other virtues, pales.
Life and Nothing But, at the Key, is rated PG.