World War I has been the subject of some of the most powerful and prestigious films in cinema from King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and more recently, Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019), nominated for ten Oscars including Best Picture. All of those films captured the grim horrors of the battlefield, the demoralization and death toll of the troops and the often reckless or unnecessary military strategies of commanding officers. Going against the grain is Thomas l’imposteur (Thomas the Impostor), based on Jean Cocteau’s 1923 novel which was inspired by his own experiences during WW1 as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. Directed by Georges Franju from a screenplay by himself, Cocteau and Michel Worms, the 1965 film views war through the experiences of two idealistic dreamers, one an aristocrat, the Princess de Bormes (Emmanuelle Riva), the other an orphan (Fabrice Rouleau), who lies about his age and invents a fake backstory for himself so he can enlist. The result is a unique take on the Great War which combines the ambiance of a dark fairy tale with a realistic but emotionally detached approach to the events as they affect the two main protagonists.
The film opens with the following introduction as the camera surveys a lavish ball for the Parisian elite and dignitaries: “This war began in the greatest of chaos. The government had just left Paris for Bordeaux to plan the victory of the Marne. Rampant confusion had taken over from the previous calm and was leading to extravagance.” The hostess giving the ball is the Princess de Bormes, a Polish aristocrat, who fantasizes the war as an elaborate stage production full of pomp and circumstance. She longs to be near the action and sets her mind on setting up a civilian convoy to treat wounded soldiers. The military and the government refuse to sponsor such an effort and view it as a negative response to their handling of the war but Ms. de Bormes is sincere in her humanitarian efforts and puts together a small convoy with a doctor (Bernard Lavalette), head nurse Madame Valiche (Rosy Varte), some drivers and limited medical supplies.
She is soon joined by Thomas, a young, earnest officer, who claims he is the nephew of General de Fontenoy, and Ms. De Bormes becomes infatuated with this charming stranger who seems to be a good luck charm for the convoy due to his surname. Like Ms. De Bormes, Thomas is deluded about the true nature of war and sees it an exciting adventure, one where he can prove his bravery on the battlefield and become a hero. Both characters are clearly living in a fantasy world and, as the war drags on, death and destruction surround them and eventually take a toll on their romanticized ideals.
Observing all of this and occasionally providing voice-over narration is Pasquel-Duport (Jean Servais), an influential newspaper editor whose proposal of marriage to Ms. De Bormes is repeatedly turned down despite his persistence. He views her volunteer medical unit as a folly and tells her, “You go to war as if it were theater. Maybe you think the dead all get up at the end and that bombardments are just a fireworks display.” Nevertheless, Ms. De Bormes ventures to the front lines with her convoy and soon realizes just how ill-prepared they are to deal with the wounded and dying.
Franju’s film alternates between a slowly evolving nightmare and theater of the absurd spectacle as scenes of mass devastation and death achieve a strange kind of beauty via the black and white cinematography of Marcel Fradetal, most of it taking place under gray skies or at night as the convoy travels through rain, mud and fog. The movie’s anti-war sentiments are also conveyed through subtle but telling incidents that can be cruel and darkly humorous at the same time. A prime example of this is when a French officer views a barn full of gravely wounded German soldiers and pricks the men with a pitchfork to see which ones respond in pain. Those who do are deemed worth saving since they still have some life in them while the unresponsive ones are abandoned to die.
Another grotesque sequence shows a priest having to pry open a dead soldier’s jaw with a pinknife so he can place a communion wafer in his mouth. And Ms. De Bormes’s romantic notions about the Great War are finally shattered when she encounters the muddy corpses of a mother embracing her child, which reminds her of her own daughter Henriette (Sophie Dares), who has come to the front lines to be with her beloved Thomas. (The title character’s romance with Henrietta appears to be nothing more than a gallant gesture toward his self-absorbed fantasy and any possible romantic attraction between Ms. De Bormes and Thomas is never explored).
By the way, the title Thomas the Impostor seems to have a negative connotation but the male protagonist is actually a fearless and attractive figure who has fabricated a mythology for himself. In reality, he is an underage schoolboy who has fooled everyone into thinking he is actually related to a French general. [Spoiler alert] He survives numerous scraps with death but his demise in the final scene of the film isn’t from combat in the trenches but from a sniper’s rifle as he seeks to retrieve a letter from Henriette. The narrator states “Inside him fiction and reality were one and the same” as Thomas finally grasps his fate under a lovely starry sky, which features Cocteau’s famous Orphic lyre motif.
Thomas the Impostor marked the final film collaboration for Cocteau, who personally approved Franju as director, even though they had never worked together. Although Cocteau died shortly after completing the screenplay in 1963 at age 74, Franju remained faithful to Cocteau’s adaptation, often incorporating passages from the original novel, which are used in Pasquel-Duport’s voice-over narration.
French film critics and cinephiles were surprised at the time about the prospect of a Cocteau-Franju partnership because the directors had such distinctly different visual and aesthetic approaches to cinema. Cocteau had been a major force in the surrealist and Dadaist art movements of the early 1920s while Franju came from a background in documentary filmmaking. But look closer and you can see strong similarities in their visual representation of surrealist imagery such as in Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1932) and Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960).
Some scenes in Thomas the Impostor are pure Cocteau touches such as a horse galloping through a bombed-out village with his mane on fire, an oil portrait bursting into flames in an abandoned mansion or Thomas shooting a reflection of himself in a mirror because…he doesn’t recognize himself or wants to annihilate what he sees? Other moments demonstrate Franju’s fantastical side such as transforming a sky full of explosions into something wondrous and magical or depicting a village tribute to French soldiers as a carnival tourist attraction complete with a fortune teller and sideshow ball games like trying to hit dummy targets dressed as German soldiers.
One also has to admire the ensemble performances, particularly the elegant Emmanuelle Riva as the high-spirited Princess de Bormes (she had previously appeared in the title role of Franju’s Therese, 1962). Riva is luminous here and wholly convincing as a Parisian aristocrat who fancies herself as some sort of Florence Nightingale for the troops. Fabrice Rouleau in his feature film debut as Thomas is equally impressive for capturing the character’s childlike innocence and delusional nature. Franju was able to turn the young actor’s lack of experience into a creation that remains a fascinating but puzzling enigma till the end.
Thomas the Impostor is rarely listed among Franju’s greatest work; his short documentaries Blood of the Beasts (1949) and Hotel des Invalides (1952) plus Eyes Without a Face, Therese and Judex (1963) are generally considered his masterpieces. Some well-regarded film critics like David Thomson have dismissed Thomas the Impostor as “too preoccupied by the blithe chaos of the First World War for the stray moments of agony to be more than decoration.” Yet the film has its defenders and is ripe for revival. Tony Rayns of TimeOut writes, “Tougher, more materialistic in his view of fantasy, and with a broader sense of philosophical and social contexts, Franju reformulates the book with surprising fidelity, but disengages his audience from Thomas’s subjective experience. The war is seen as an ‘absurd’ unreal backdrop, a network of extraordinary images and moods, but Franju has made a film about fantasy, not a fantasy film. It is compulsive and utterly absorbing.”
Thomas the Impostor is not currently available on any format in the U.S. but you might be able to pursue an import DVD (no English subtitles) from France if you have an all-region DVD player that can play PAL discs. This is clearly a film that needs a Blu-ray restoration via The Criterion Collection, Second Run Films or some other art film-focused collective.
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