The Patriots

(Les Patriotes, Eric Rochant, France, 1994)


Surely one of the most hilarious trends in current movie exhibition is the refusal to translate certain foreign (especially French) film titles. I guess it's not hard to figure out what Le Colonel Chabert (Yves Angelo [1994]) or Une pure formalité (Guiseppe Tornatore [1994])) mean, but this obviousness is precisely what makes this marketing trick look like a chic publicity affectation.

When a film release actually forces you to learn a few words in a language you may not know – as is the case with Caro diario (1994) or Latcho Drom (Tony Gatlif [1993]) – that I can handle a bit better. But Le Colonel Chabert? – come on now. The latest comic example of this trend is Les Patriotes which, amazingly enough, means The Patriots.

Complaining about the title is about as deep as one can get with this film. (Its makers clearly do not agree: in 2005 it re-emerged in France on DVD in a special, re-cut Director's Edition.) The Patriots sets out to examine Israeli politics and the operations of the Mossad (secret police). Yet, as political thrillers go, this one has rather less going on in it than even Clear and Present Danger (Phillip Noyce [1994]), and very much less than, say, The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer [1962]). The only political discussion in the whole film occurs when the gullible young hero Ariel (played by Yvan Attal) has a heavy conversation with one of his comrades. Ariel asserts that he joined the force because of his belief in "the land" – to which his elder companion solemnly replies that "land is just sand".

Political thrillers often centre on misfits, displaced citizens – sometimes quietly crazed guys (its usually guys) who leave their home country, their family, their job, their culture, everything, because of their attraction to some sinister, underground ideology. These citizens function as alienated anti-heroes, and their political allegiances figure as empty, psychotic gestures, pathetic attempts to win approval from fascistic authority figures and become part of a big, horrible family unit. A lot of films about terrorism begin from such a premise, like the dreadful movie from 1980, A Small Circle of Friends (Rob Cohen), and so do movies about people who join sinister, secret law-enforcement agencies, as with Warren Beatty in The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula [1974]). Whether the group in question is left-wing or right-wing hardly seems to matter in many of these movies: most political thrillers unfortunately don't score very highly for their political insight, or accuracy. Films about kids running away to join secret political groups could just as well be about religious sects, or something similar. When the narrative formula that I'm describing gets wheeled in, a certain very conservative attitude rules from the word go: no viewer is asked to take very seriously the political delusions of a misfit kid, or of a mad underground cell. All these characters are usually presented as lost, sick, ignorant children, crying out for a Mummy and Daddy, rebels without a real cause.

In the first part of The Patriots, we follow Ariel's rigorous training to be a secret agent. This section of the film reminded me a little of the surreal political fables fashioned by the once lauded, now pretty forgotten Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó. In Jancsó's films (like Winter Wind [1969], The Pacifist [1971] or The Tyrant's Heart [1981]), the inculcation of a particular political ideology into impressionable young subjects involves an endless round of demanding exercises and particular mind-games that foster complete helplessness and dependence. People are trained to double-cross, to trust no one, to shoot their best friend before asking questions, to seduce their comrade's wife. People keep dropping dead in the snow during the course of these bizarre rituals, and then suddenly come back to life, just to keep every player on his or her toes. Everyone is thus kept locked in vicious psychological and emotional double-binds. Ariel's training follows this pattern too, in a minor-key kind of way. He is taught through example that appearances are always duplicitous, that strategic moves always hide other more secret and cannier moves, that the big invisible boss upstairs may be controlling every event in sight, and that every traditional human emotion is expendable.

Ariel is eventually sent to France and America to recruit top-level informants. He and his team insinuate themselves into their targets' lives, and then begin ruthlessly manipulating them into a state of complicity. Whenever operations start going wrong – which is usually the case – guns, bombs and runaway vehicles appear instantly to clean up the mess.

The film has a Cold War atmosphere pitched more towards John Le Carré than Miklós Jancsó. Every agent is expertly briefed to lie, bluff and spread a smokescreen at every step of their cruel game. Anyone who actually has a political passion or a commitment immediately becomes a dupe, a stooge in someone else's game, as happens with a rather pathetic American defector that Ariel supervises for a while. The film listlessly raises questions about the morality of these operations, but it mainly has fun drawing the viewer into its web of guesswork and duplicity.

An equally listless element in the film is its love story. At one point fairly early on, Ariel makes professional contact with a glamorous prostitute Marie-Claude (played by Sandrine Kiberlain). Marie-Claude gets into her assignment with perverse relish – free to enjoy herself, perhaps, because she has no ideological motive or training. Having seduced the Mossad's target, she brazenly walks straight up to the lens of Ariel's secret hidden camera and makes brazen suggestions to him. Naturally, it's love at first sight, and Ariel spends the rest of the plot dreaming in slow-motion flashback of Marie-Claude, and searching every nook and cranny for her. Has she been eliminated by the Mossad, placed in permanent hiding, given a new identity? By the time the answer came in the final scene, I could hardly care less.

The Patriots is directed by Eric Rochant. Across the course of only three feature films, this filmmaker has become the Claude Chabrol of his young generation of French directors. He started with a fairly striking debut, a film at the end of the '80s called A World Without Pity (1989). It was a film about cruel young love, about an uncommitted young man toying with the affections of his various women companions. It had some of the same tough, lyrical spirit as the first French New Wave films, or contemporary French movies like The Disenchanted (Benoît Jacquot [1990]) or 36 Fillette (Catherine Breillat [1988]). At the same time, Rochant showed a sense of story construction and visual style that was crisper, cleaner, more classical than in any of these other youth-oriented films.

Rochant's next film Autobus (1990), which I haven't seen, apparently took him closer to the mainstream. Again it had a disaffected anti-hero, played as always by his favourite male lead Yvan Attal; again it was about a confused rejection of the social norm, a lost, plaintive rebel. It is perhaps not much of a step from there to The Patriots, a slick, well-crafted but fundamentally empty thriller. It is especially sad to see Rochant here obediently serving up all the sexist clichés of a '60s-style espionage intrigue, like an old James Bond film crossed with a modern slick commercial for perfume, mobile phones or air travel.

Still, there is no doubting Rochant's skill as a filmmaker, and in particular his skill with mise en scène, the way that actors are positioned in the frame in relation to the camera. Rochant can make even the dullest, tritest plot move compulsively watchable by his use of a prowling camera that sets up a hide-and-seek game between the viewer and the events on-screen. We rarely get all the elements of the scene at once: the camera often takes us from some cruel or mysterious event happening in one room or one corner to someone else who is watching, taking it in, preparing their own next move. Rochant acknowledges his great debt in this regard to Sergio Leone's films, especially Once Upon a Time in America (1984), where the most moving points of the story are communicated through this kind of slow, visual revelation of characters watching, feeling, thinking. For a film that finally has very little to say, The Patriots works hard at "revealing" as much as possible, in this way, from one tricky plot moment to the next.

© Adrian Martin July 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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