Black and White in Color (Noirs et blancs en couleur) (1976)

Lesley Smith

Jean-Jacques Annaud's first, and most eloquent, movie has lost none of its bite since it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture 26 years ago.

Black and White in Color (noirs Et Blancs En Couleur)

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Cast: Jean Carmet, Jacques Spiesser, Jean Dufilho, Catherine Rouvel, Peter Berling, Jacques Monnet
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Allied Artists
First date: 1976
US Release Date: 1969-12-31

Early in January 1915, two missionary priests, on a tour of their parishes on the isolated margins of French Equitorial Africa, collect a package for Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiessier) a schoolteacher based at the same dusty, half-forgotten trading post where they live. The arrival of the package so excites the lonely community of nine misfits that everyone voraciously hovers over "Monsieur Hubert" as he unpacks the books, magazines and newspapers dispatched four months before. While he, a self-styled socialist, immediately retreats to a corner to read about the assassination of Jaures, the French socialist leader, the others scrabble greedily through the newspapers.

Slowly, though, they realize that France has been at war with Germany since August of 1914. In a sudden surge of irrational jingoism, they decide to attack their nearest neighbor and best customer, the equally tiny German garrison a few miles away. After all, as Réchampot (Jean Dufilho), the owner of the post's largest store, boasts, the French have six African soldiers against the Germans' three, plus one regular army sergeant, two priests and the schoolteacher to direct operations. But when the Germans' Africans prove more adept at war than the French Africans, the two groups of exiles decide that the only way to guarantee victory is the impressment of ever larger armies of local Africans. The accelerating corruption of morality this struggle provokes is the subject of Jean-Jacques Annaud's biting World War I satire, Black and White in Color.

Annaud's first, and most eloquent, movie has lost none of its bite since it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture 26 years ago. Annaud's satire runs, in Emily Dickinson's phrase, "aslant," encompassing an unusually comprehensive historical vision. He weaves into this taut, 92-minute film not only the unfolding of a local conflict fatally infused with imperialist ideology, but also a scathing commentary on both the fighting of World War I and its tragic effects on the countries who fought it.

The film cleverly skewers both imperialism and World War I through precise characters. Unlike the caricatured, malicious misanthropes of Richard Attenborough's Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), the bumbling colonial riff-raff of Annaud's French trading post are ineptly ordinary, bent on making money, making love, and making it to retirement. The petit bourgeois traders drink, eat, and snigger complacently at the neighboring Germans, who can train their African bearers to perform precision marching, but have to buy all their supplies from the French.

The "intellectuals" on the post, the young schoolmaster and the two missionary priests, the anarchically misnamed Father John of the Cross (Peter Berling) and his younger colleague, Father Simon (Jacques Monnet) substitute self-regarding, delusional arrogance for the commercial and sensual glee of the bourgeois shopkeepers. Fresnoy's exam results were so abysmal that instead of finding himself lecturing in the Parisian lycée he had imagined, he has to endure exile to the "white man's grave" of the African trading post. His only intellectual outlet lies in the long letters he writes to his former professor, which take six months to reach their destination. In these letters, Annaud captures the "enlightened" philosophy of the pre-war socialist towards "the African," allowing Fresnoy to damn himself by writing, "The natives are not far from meeting the honored name of men."

The priests, on the other hand, view the local population as nothing more than pliant fodder for the kingdom of God (and whatever earthly purposes the French divine for them, including the waging of war). As Father Simon travels from parish to parish in a litter carried by the obedient of his flock, he leans back and breathes, "Ah, how I love this song!" As he, in unison with his compatriots, has never bothered to learn more than a few words of the local language, he remains blissfully unaware that his African servants' chant mocks the vile smell of his feet and his ever-rocketing weight.

None of these characters has any idea what modern war might mean, a fitting parallel to the European governments at the time. They ignored the devastating barbarity of the Manchurian battles in the Russo-Japanese war (1905) and the unprecedented, entrenched slaughter of American Civil War battles like Fredericksburg (1862), Vicksburg (1863) and Petersburg (1864), and assumed that a period of gentlemanly conflict might terminate by Christmas 1914. The film questions every aspect of the war throughout, from Réchampot's bravado while crossing a muddy, insignificant stream that separates the French and German colonies (a contemptuous reference to the Rhine) to the misery of African troops condemned to rainy season trenches, where they die of disease before bullet wounds.

Perhaps most sobering is Annaud's portrayal of the recruiting of armies to fight this European war. The French first try bribery, offering a tin basin and a pair of boots to every "volunteer," who is also rechristened with a French name. When supplies of tin basins run out and the boots prove unbearable (according to one recruit, their discomfort explains why Europeans are so miserable all the time), the colonists resort to sleazy deals with local chiefs, who undertake to provide quotas of troops in return for peace with the French. While Annaud's vision of African troops in African trenches stretches historical accuracy in the service of art, he portrays the quota system coolly and factually, showing how the chiefs allied to the Europeans went to war with their neighbors to capture the bodies to fill the quotas. In this maelstrom of European hubris, over two million Africans fought and more than 200,000 died, a mobilization of manpower the historian Hew Strachan calls the greatest ever attempted in Africa. (1)

Peace is reached in 1918, but without honor. Annaud pinpoints in microcosm all the consequences of World War I. Réchampot's hoarding and lies reflect the ruthless profiteering of the commercial classes who, despite their "patriotism," think only of their personal gain. By turning idealistic young men of egalitarian principles (like Fresnoy) into petty dictators who create ever more draconian "states" to pursue the war, Annaud parallels the breaking apart of the pan-European Socialist movements. While these political parties threatened, just before the outbreak of war, to challenge the oligarchs of European democracy, they had discovered by 1919, through the taste of power the war offered, the sweetness of the status quo offered by colonialism and capitalism alike.

Resuming "business as usual" at the end of the war, the French colonials discover that only one thing will change in their lives: the Africans who were once German will now be English. Both commerce and conversion can proceed unchecked (at least until the next war they provoke breaks out in 1939). In this context, Home Vision Entertainment's release of Annaud's film to DVD seems fortuitous: as America and Britain emerge from their second imperial war in 12 years, the sliding of Black and White in Color into high school and college curricula might remind the next generation of decision-makers that war not only serves national interests but also fosters indifference to human suffering.

* * * *

(1) Strachan, Hew, The First World War, Volume I: To Arms (Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 2001), 497.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.