Dir. Denis Dercourt. France. 2009. 100 mins.
Those who assume classical musicians are sissies may have to adjust their thinking after Tomorrow At Dawn, in which classical music meets historical battle re-enactments to excellent effect. As with his The Page Turner - also an Un Certain Regard selection and the most widely sold French film at Cannes in 2006 - writer-director Denis Dercourt establishes a mood of constant unease throughout. The viewer can sense that bad things will happen without ever knowing when or in what form, and the punchline of this tale is a satisfying surprise.
The Page Turner, with its delectably sinister showdown between two women, notched an impressive 725,000 admissions in France before taking over $9million worldwide. Dercourt’s latest, set in a masculine world, has already sold to several French-speaking territories and should readily find additional takers. By combining a milieu he knows well (Dercourt is a professional viola player who teaches at the Conservatory in Strasbourg) and one he has meticulously researched (the part-nerdy/part-manly and increasingly popular realm of battle reenactments), the filmmaker has hit on an unusual combo that could make a few inroads beyond the art house circuit.
The film starts involvingly with a cluster of men in late 18th century military attire preparing for a swordfight in a misty field. The effort expended by the two adversaries, punctuated by the clang of metal, is thrilling. One opponent draws blood.
Cut to a contemporary setting in which concert pianist and composer Mathieu (Vincent Perez) is giving a piano lesson in the tasteful salon of the apartment he shares with his wife and young son.
After the lesson, he drives to the suburban Paris house where his seriously ailing mother (Françoise Lebrun) lives with Mathieu’s younger brother Paul (Jérémie Renier). She will soon leave for a long hospital stay and knows Paul’s emotional stability depends on Mathieu’s support
in her absence. Paul works in a warehouse but devotes all his spare time to a clandestine battle re-enactment group centred on two regiments of Emperor Napoleon’s forces.
To say that participants are deadly serious about dressing up and pointing vintage weapons at each other while speaking in the ultra-formal language of a bygone France would be an understatement.
In a deftly written series of interactions, Mathieu attends a weekend bivouac and suits up to humour his brother, only to find himself implicated in matters of honour whose ramifications go far beyond play-acting.
Perez, who has several important costume pictures to his credit (Queen Margot, Cyrano De Bergerac, Fanfan La Tulipe) looks well in uniform and handles vintage weapons with flair, in addition to playing short piano passages well enough to convince as an acclaimed pianist. His elegant manners and controlled anger contrast well with Renier’s boyish enthusiasm.
Aurelien Recoing is spot-on as a military commander not easily satisfied.
Straightforward but effective widescreen filming and editing keep several emotional layers percolating simultaneously. Dercourt doles out information in gradual doses, toggling back and forth between the demands of the Napoleonic Wars and the obligations of everyday life, until the two are intertwined on a level that demands action.
As with Dercourt’s five previous features, the musical score is perfectly chosen and smartly applied.
France 3 Cinema
(33) 1 53 10 33 99
Denis Dercourt, with Jacques Sotty