La Chambre des Officiers/The Officers’ Ward (2001)

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The films I’ve watched over the last four years have covered a wide spectrum of aspects and viewpoints of the conflict. I’ve watched and learned about life in the trenches, aerial warfare, the backwater fighting in Africa, the Eastern Front, mental health issues, the home front in Germany, Verdun, naval battles, the Middle East, spying, field punishment, the Christmas Truce, weapon design, tunnelling, life after the war, poetry…..the list goes on and on. One thing that I touched upon back in review number two, ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ was the lasting impact of physical injury. And since then it’s really not a subject that has popped up much. In Great War Films it seems that the combatants either live or die. Some may get a nice little blighty one but it’s not been until today that I’ve revisited major trauma as a subject matter.

And that kind of makes sense I suppose. Facial injury isn’t the kind of things that gets the unwashed masses flocking to the box office. But then, once in a while, a film comes along that flies in the face of convention. My movie today is ‘La Chambre des Officiers’ from 2001, or to my Anglophone tongue ‘The Officers Ward’. The film follows a young French Officer who, on the opening day of the conflict rides his horse straight into an exploding shell. His colleagues and their horses are all killed and our protagonist is left with traumatic facial injuries, barely clutching to life. The story follows him as he recovers from these injuries and makes a few friends along the way.

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The director makes some confident decisions in the early stages of the film. As the viewer you don’t get to see the facial injuries for a fair while. We see the world from the viewpoint of the protagonist. We hear the bubbling, bloodied, struggle for every single breath and watch as the stretcher bearers and carers wince at the sight of his injuries. We hear his thoughts as he diagnoses the extent of his injuries. Checking his toes wiggle, trying to feel the inside of his mouth with his tongue, the realisation that life will never again be the same for him. Eventually, following a number of surgeries, he is mobile and quickly realises he can see himself, his face and the damage done in the reflection of a window. At this point we the viewer are also allowed to see the nature of his injuries.

As I mentioned earlier there’s a hint of ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ in this opening half hour. Especially with the internal monologue of the victim. Over time there is a chalk board to help him communicate and eventually the power of speech returns. We’re probably about a year and a half into his recovery by this point, but it’s hard to be sure. This is one of the first failings of the film. I really struggled to get a grip on the passing of time. The film is pretty much all set within the confines of the ward itself with very little in terms of seasonal shots or time stamps to get an idea of how much time has passed. They drop the timescales into conversation every now and then to make the point but it still came as a shock to me that we were suddenly a year or so further down the line than I had accounted for.

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It’s a pretty slow film as well coming in at around 140 minutes. You get the feel for the sheer number of operations these folks are going through but there’s not really much in the way of story development as time passes. New people come and go, the room slowly becomes more crowded, the beds are pushed closer together then extra beds are added to the central walkway. The huddled masses of limping, bandaged and broken veterans take on the look of a George A Romero zombie flick at a few points in the film. But overall it’s pretty much same same day in, day out and that began to drag after about the first 90 minutes.

There is minimal use of music except for a few bits where it gets emotional. In the early stages when we’ve not yet seen the extent of the injuries there is plenty of work from the foley artists. Guttural noises, slapping flesh and bubbling mucus really paint a picture of the damage done to the poor chaps face and his struggle to breathe. The director has relied on the ambient sounds of echoing footsteps, clattering medicine trolleys and quietly wheezing patients to fill the dead air. I’d say that’s pitched about right for a film that’s immensely personal in its focus.

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I think the subject matter has been handled well here although from a google image search of victims of facial injuries I feel the director has pulled his punches a little. The disfigurement is not as grim as it could’ve been, but again, that is most likely to ensure people will pay their money to go and see the film. The realities of the suffering of these chaps would’ve been a real challenge to transfer to the big screen. My worry though is that what is left behind paints a picture of the recovery of these guys as being slightly comical in nature with occasional moments of melancholy.

Overall I liked it but I feel it was a little long, a little slow and a little bit vanilla, even a suicide of two don’t seem to darken the tone. The first 30 minutes or so, before we see the extent of the facial injuries, were the best with some exciting cinematic tools and tricks on display. Once we see the guy on the mend it all gets less edgy. The ending is a happy one, but I feel like they wrote two or three endings and then couldn’t decide which one to use…so they used them all. But I shan’t be too mean about it. It’s a well-produced and thought provoking film covering an aspect of the conflict not really dealt with anywhere else, and for that alone it deserves a thumbs up.

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