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.
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.
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