Director: Maxime Chefdeville
Writers: Maxime Chefdeville, Leopold Bara & Manuel Sinor
Cast: Thomas Alden, Elie Kaempfen, Manuel Sinor, Charly Bouthemy, Leopold Bara, Hugo Malpeyre, Mark Baris, Joao Fleury Chopin, Michel Vivier, Apollline Simon, Esaie Fleury Chopin, Florent Martin
Running time: 15 mins
War is always with us. Despite a hopeful call by the United Nations for a ceasefire during the pandemic, organised violence by state and non-state actors is currently taking human lives in Nagorno Karabakh, Yemen, Rakhine, Syria, Donbas, Congo, Mozambique, Libya and across much of the Sahel – the list is seemingly endless. It therefore seems a strange time for this French film sponsored by UNESCO to be released, as The Cabin obliquely celebrates war and the male warrior ethos.
The film opens on a beach under peaceful, blue skies. A boy and a girl are playing in the sand – the camera picks out two toys the boy is playing with: a model army jeep and a 1930s ragtop car. The camera then tracks to an aged man watching the children. The screen suddenly fades and cuts to a spectacular overhead shot of soldiers making their way through tall reeds/bamboo. At this stage, I wondered: French guy of a certain age, signposted visually as a reminiscence, what war is going to be portrayed? Indo-Chine? Algiers? No: it is tall reeds, not bamboo, and this is the righteous Hitler War instead.
More precisely, we are in Normandy, as made clear by the opening credits, which state the film was “made as part of the 75th anniversary of the landings.” The action follows a US platoon that comes under fire from a smaller unit of Nazi soldiers. There is a short dialogue to sketch out the character of the American ‘Leader’, the Sergeant, and of a Private, the ‘Oddball’. Similarly, on the Nazi side, a dialogue establishes the same dynamic.
The exchange of fire continues but then the Nazi Oddball notices a young child, a boy, has strayed onto the killing floor, and calls for his colleagues to ceasefire. Miraculously, both sides ceasefire whilst the child retreats up a suspiciously pristine ladder to a well-appointed tree-house –the titular Cabin. The Nazi Oddball then emerges from cover with a bandana as a white flag, to try to rescue the boy, while the US Sergeant discovers the US Oddball speaks French, and commissions him to also rescue the child.
This inevitably leads the two Oddballs to meet, and go up to the Cabin. They establish a rapport, swap personal names, and reassure the child whose name they discover is Louis. The Nazi Oddball consigns the child’s safety to his US counterpart. In gratitude, Louis gives Nazi Oddball – you have guessed it – his toy ragtop car. In return, Nazi Oddball, presents Louis with his white truce bandana and enjoins him not to lose it as it will bring him luck.
US Oddball then shepherds Louis back to the safety of the US lines where the Sergeant gives Oddball a grudging pat on the back. The Nazi Oddball returns to his unit and we see that US Oddball’s colleague, the Sniper, has the crossfires of his rifle trained on Nazi Oddball’s body: Sniper declines to press the trigger – one assumes out of respect for Nazi Oddball’s bravery.
The film cuts to the aged man on the beach who pulls out of his pocket and meditatively rubs – you have guessed it – the white bandana. The aged man is Louis. A small girl says, “Shall we go now Grandpa?” and Louis and his grandchildren walk along the beach into the distance as plangent music swells.
In terms of The Cabin’s presentation, the cinematography is excellent, across what is generally a very well-produced film. The overhead establishing shot of the battlefield, the pastoral scene where US Oddball lays down his rifle in a swathe of celandine, the close-up of the Sniper’s eyes, the evocation of childhood innocence in the opening beach scene are all memorable. The sound is first class, with its contrast of birdsong and gunshot and with a competent music score from Benjamin Ribolet. And yet despite its technical prowess, the film is rotten to its core.
The physical realism of the film seems to try and legitimise piles of clichés, which come so thick and fast that I wondered at one point if this had been meant as a parody. My favourite was at a key moment during the ceasefire we hear the sound of church bells and as the chimes grow louder the camera sweeps across the verdant tree-scape to focus on the church steeple. This foregrounds a common white, Christian, western European identity stretching back maybe as far as Louis the Pious and the Field of Lies, as do the film’s uses of language and identity.
When the two Oddballs meet to save the child, they speak French – the language of European diplomacy – again reinforcing the common ideal of a white western European civilisation. Aside from the problematic use of European culture as a signifier of peace and civilisation – conveniently overlooking several centuries of violent colonialism – this use of language also detracts a little from the film’s polished execution, as a Francophone cast attempt woefully to portray US GIs. Which actors play which characters is not shown in the credits – presumably on the principle of protecting the guilty – but there is not a Texas drawl or New Jersey twang to be heard, so were it not for the uniforms, we would have no idea anyone here was Americans.
At the same time, for a war the language is surprisingly PG. Language in battle tends from participants’ accounts to become atavistic – and while I am not suggesting the director should have made use of the Allied exemplar of ‘the fucking fucker is fucking fucked,’ hearing a US Sergeant berate his subordinate with only a decorous “goddamn” was underwhelming. Even stranger was that the Sergeant, when alone, muttered under his breath a solitary “fuck” suggesting more colourful language was available – just utterly misused.
With further regard to the acting, the portrayal of the Sergeant is uniformly and spectacularly dreadful – the actor appears to have modelled his approach on that of the late John Wayne at his most wooden. At the same time, while the playing of the two Oddballs is passable, even endearing on occasion, it is undermined by what I found the most problematic cliché of the film.
Through the use of the bandana as keepsake for the child with its evocation of the age of chivalry, we are given the message that: in wars some bad things happen but true warriors make it all worthwhile. This is a reinforcement of an absurd ‘shared’ Western ideal – even the Nazi and American war machines could grind to a halt to save a French child. What is left unsaid by the film is that at the other end of Europe the Nazis were waging a war of extermination against ‘Slavic’ people where a ceasefire to protect a local child would be even more implausible.
I kept pondering who could the film be aimed at. With its attempt at realism but with cardboard characterisation and simplistic plotting maybe it was for a children’s audience. But I realised the single “fuck” would rule this out – it remains a mystery to me. Director Chefdeville has shown an ability to gather together an impressive technical team to create a work with first class production values. I would suggest that for future development, he eschew any further attempts at realism as this does not appear to play to his strengths. He should possibly investigate genres where heavily signposted events and neon-lit metaphors fit more easily. Possibilities that come to mind are fantasy, commercial promotions, political party propaganda and business/governmental information.