Favourite French Films # 1 Le Vieux Fusil

Châteaux de Bruniquel - acknowledgements Office de Tourisme de Bruniquel

I am not a great devotee of French film. I find it either self-consciously existentialist or self-conscious full stop. However appealing Audrey Tautou might be, I found ‘Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain’ desperately irritating and had to switch off after 10 minutes. That fell into the self-conscious full stop category. Before I start sounding like the grumpy old woman that I suspect I am becoming (I was a grumpy young one, too), let me say I have a few favourites. I will provide an occasional selection on these pages.

Le Vieux Fusil

I’m starting with a film that was made in this region (1975, directed by Robert Enrico). Starring the excellent Philippe Noiret and the luminous Romy Schneider, much of it was filmed at Bruniquel, a village perched on a hill overlooking the River Aveyron. It has not one but two châteaux, built at different periods (to be the subject of a later post no doubt).

The backdrop is the beginning of the end of World War II in June 1944 just after the Normandy landings. Noiret plays a surgeon, Julien Dandieu, who practises at a Montauban hospital. In line with the Hippocratic Oath he refuses treatment to no one, including potentially compromising maquisards. Romy Schneider plays his second wife, Clara, a former good-time girl with her heart in the right place. Despite their incongruence, their relationship works and she hits it off well with the surgeon’s young daughter from his first marriage.

Under threat from the local kommandantur, Dandieu sends his family to stay in his ancestral château at Bruniquel, believing it to be a safe bolthole. It’s there that the nightmare starts. The Das Reich 2nd SS Panzer Division, which did indeed perpetrate some terrible atrocities on its way to join the fight in Normandy, stops at Bruniquel. Not content with massacring the villagers, they also kill Dandieu’s wife and daughter in a particularly horrific sequence.

(Here, I should say that there’s no evidence that they did anything at Bruniquel, but a number of other places bear the record of their infamy. Bruniquel was probably used in the film because it is picturesque and is intended to represent Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin, the site of one of the more notorious massacres).

Dandieu, entirely unaware of what has happened, drives out to Bruniquel in his gazogène wood-fired car (amazing contraptions) to spend the day with his family and stumbles upon the carnage. Overcome with grief but determined to take revenge, he unearths an old hunting gun from its hiding place (le vieux fusil) and proceeds to pick off the small detachment of Germans, one by one. His boyhood knowledge of the warren of passages beneath the castle enables him to stay one step ahead of his adversaries all the time.

Seeing the film sur place

We first saw this film at Bruniquel itself, one summer many years ago. A large screen was set up on the esplanade of the vieux château and we sat on rather uncomfortable benches to see the film. Watching it in the place it was actually made brought it alive in a way that seeing it in a traditional cinema could never have done. We must have seen it at least three or four times on TV since then. 

This is a masterly piece of filmmaking. That the actors were excellent goes without saying. But the filmography was wonderful too. And I am beyond words to describe the shock of the horrific events when juxtaposed with the family’s idyllic existence. I can never visit Bruniquel without thinking of this film and a shiver goes down my spine when I recall some of the sequences.

Philippe Noiret died in November 2006, aged 76. At that time, they screened some interviews with him. His reminiscences about the making of ‘Le Vieux Fusil’ include his inability to control the cow wandering loose when he arrives at the scene of the massacre. He was supposed to tie it to a ring in the wall, but the cow wasn’t having any of it and recognised a novice when it saw one. The person in the film tying up the cow, therefore, might not have been Noiret himself.

Further reading/references

Max Hastings’ book Das Reich: the March of the 2nd SS Panzer Division through France (1982; now out of print, it seems), chronicles the division’s march northwards. It also offers some interesting insights into the French resistance movement, which was neither as homogeneous nor as well-organised as it is sometimes portrayed.

Bruniquel is one of les plus beaux villages de France. See the tourist office site here.

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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11 Responses to Favourite French Films # 1 Le Vieux Fusil

  1. Pingback: Death of a Village: Oradour-sur-Glane | Life on La Lune

  2. h martin says:

    Me again, sorry, it must be because you write an interesting blog! Just to say there is a new(er) edition of Das Reich by Max Hastings published in 2009.
    I am v interested in Le Vieux Fusil which I haven’t seen and will now look out for thanks for that- but the incomparable Louis Malle had a house near Lugagnac and made Lacombe, Lucien around and about – in Figeac and Arcambal – it’s the story of a young peasant lad looking for adventure who tries to join the resistance and is rejected so joins the milice instead. It’s an incredibly tragic tale of how he falls in love with a young, sophisticated, Parisian Jewish girl hiding in the area. Not at all self-conscious (agree totally about Amélie, but not about French movies in general) and a great study of collaboration. Malle discovered his own house had been used as a maquis hide-out before he owned it and the portrait of Joseph in Au Revoir les Enfants, another stunningly good war-time tale based on his own experiences, was based on a local collaborator who was ultimately condemned to death in Cahors post-war and who had lived in the house with the Maquis France.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Goodness, don’t apologise. I love getting comments and flattery will get you everywhere. I’m glad to have introduced you to Le Vieux Fusil and I hope you enjoy it (although perhaps enjoy isn’t quite the right word, given the events it relates). In return, I will look out for Lacombe, Lucien. I think I had heard of it but have never seen it. Fascinating story about Louis Malle’s discoveries.

      I was a bit OTT about French film generally to make the point but I do find some of it rather annoying. However, I have some favourites which I will share from time to time.

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    • nessafrance says:

      P.S. Thanks also for the info about the new edition of Das Reich. I have the edition which dates back some years and when I looked on Amazon yesterday the info was very confusing so it looked as it it was out of print. I will try to get hold of the later edition. I found it a well-balanced account with some interesting insights into the resistance movement. Interestingly, though, I found a very vitriolic German review of it on the Internet, which accused it of being fatuous, poorly researched and prejudiced. Hmm. Maybe that came from somewhere in South America?!

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      • h martin says:

        I think it’s excellent, though researching the subject as I am just now, I also found a mistake in it. Can’t comment on German criticisms – don’t know enough!

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  3. Btw Nessa, try to see Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret’s Le Chat. Found it recently again via the Internet, and it’s still a masterpiece of character acting.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I’ll look out for that one; thanks. I’ve never been a great Gabin fan (he wasn’t well-cast as Maigret, for example) but Simone Signoret is always worth watching.

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  4. I visited Oradour soon after 9/11 with a friend who worked the the WTC. I thought it very appropriate to remind ourselves about the horrors of war before launching attacks against countries where countless numbers of civilians casualties would be inevitable. But history seems to be doomed to repeat itself. Mankind just doesn’t get it.

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  5. Stephanie says:

    We are not that far from Oradour sur Glane, but still haven’t visited. The two older children have been with school and said it was an incredible experience. I will go one day, but I shall have to psyche myself up for it. I don’t think I could watch Le Vieux Fusil. I find all war films too devastating – which is obviously appropriate, but hard to cope with.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I haven’t been to Oradour either but I understand it is haunting, having been left as it was on the day of the massacre. Le Vieux Fusil is rather harrowing, but a bit different from most war films. Much of it is about the relationship between Julien and Clara, with flashbacks, which makes the events even more horrifying, somehow. It’s one I keep going back to, nonetheless.

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