Director Rachel Lang follows military couples in Our Men, an intriguing insight into French Foreign Legion life that closed the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight section. Lang herself graduated as Lieutenant from the French army, and served in the Sahel desert in 2017, so it’s fair to say she has more knowledge of this world than many filmmakers.
A dramatic feature with documentary level detail, Our Men focuses on two men of different ranks, and their partners. Nika (Ina Marija Bartaité), who is in her early twenties, leaves Ukraine to join her soldier boyfriend Vlad (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) in Corsica, where he is at a camp. There, she meets Céline (Camille Cottin), an older, sophisticated lawyer who is married to commanding officer Maxime (Louis Garrel). Céline spies an opportunity to recruit a babysitter, and Nika looks after their child while longing for one of her own. Vlad does not share her desire to be a parent, and so tensions build between a couple already struggling with the demands that military life can put on a relationship.
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The action flits between the women and the men in their camp, contrasting Legion life with the events of their partners’ lives. The contrasts become especially pronounced when the men go on a dangerous tour to Mali. This shows the painful waiting game the women endure at home, but also the preparatory details of their lives, such as a bikini wax or a tattoo. Meanwhile we watch the men line up to phone their partners before they head off, a somber conversation that might just be their last. It’s a sobering moment that outlines the risk and fear that’s always lurking in the background.
Performances are strong, especially from Cottin, who impressed in Cannes out of competition title Stillwater. There’s a tender and vulnerable turn from Bartaité, who died tragically earlier this year. The men are well cast but a little more mysterious: these are guys who generally keep their emotions in. Kuznetsov is all pent up energy and potential anger; Garrel is authoritative, aloof. But Lang chooses her moments to reveal telling details.
A carefully choreographed shower scene recalls Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, as well as one scene in the otherwise dissimilar Cannes Palme d’Or winner Titane. Our Men suffers in comparison to Beau Travail: not all its understated conversations deliver the impact they could. Unlike Lang’s previous film Baden Baden, there’s little humor to take the edge off the drama, and at points it even feels a bit soapy — Military Wives without the singing and jokes. But it gives a fascinating look at the daily lives of people whose situation is anything but ordinary.