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Bob Doto [Celluloid 11.11.08] movie review drama



Year: 2008
Release date: Unknown
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Writer: Bertrand Bonello
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Bob Doto
Rating: 8 out of 10

“Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult.”
—from On War, Carl Von Clausewitz’s early 19th century military treatise

Spiritual disciplines span the spectrum from quiet personal self-reflection to physically militant offensives against the ego that tyrannizes us all. Writer/Director Bertrand Bonello’s latest film On War deals with the latter.

On War is a film about purging—the purging of self, of attachment to the world, and of attachment to assumptions about one’s self in the world. As the characters in the film suggest, it is only through this purging that a person may fully release into the immediacy of joy and pleasure. And it is joy and pleasure, things real and authentic, that our protagonist Bertrand (Mathieu Amalric) is searching for.


On War opens with Bertrand, a filmmaker researching his latest work who, while onsite at a local funeral parlor, convinces the storeowner to allow him to stay beyond closing hours in order to get a better feel for the location. Alone in the store, Bertrand lays in a coffin, which accidentally closes on him and locks. The next morning he is let out by the owner, and, clearly shaken from the experience, which he describes as something akin to resignation into clarity, quickly leaves the store and begins to reevaluate his life. The following night Bertrand meets a mysterious man who, having listened to Bertrand’s description of his experience, invites him to a mansion in the country where investigations into what is required to experience true unfiltered spiritual, mental, and physical pleasure are the main objective.

With the exception of a brief stint back in the world, Bertrand remains at the mansion. From here the film follows Bertrand as he dives deeper into his psyche. People come to take him “home.” People dance. People swim naked. People wear masks. People get shot. At the mansion people both live and die.

The matriarch/patriarch of the mansion is the androgynous Uma played by the forever decadently delicious Asia Argento. In addition to being a spiritual guide for the mansion’s inhabitants she also plays a mean analog synthesizer, the avant-garde music from which she pipes into the forest on the property via speakers hung from trees facilitating meditative states for those soaking up its frequencies. The people living at the mansion are there to change, and while Uma plays the role of mother and father, she too struggles with balancing her role as the leader of a spiritual army, her own femininity, and actually feeling anything when there is a death on the commune. But war, Uma’s chosen path, inevitably leads to death, and Bonello’s latest film deals with death in both its religious and physical dimensions, subject matter that does not always sit well with a passive audience.

Artforum critic James Quandt is credited with giving the term “New French Extremity" a home on the already burdened shoulders of writers and filmmakers who produce challenging (read: sexually graphic, violent, or morally questionable) work. As with any great flavor of cinema, the term has expanded to include filmmakers of many nationalities (Lars Von Trier [Danish], Lukas Moodysson [Swedish], et al). No doubt because of its depiction of actual sexual acts, Bertrand Bonello’s earlier 2001 film Le Pornographe (The Pornographer) has the honor(?) of being listed as a newly extreme French film (so to speak). Honestly, I’m not sure if On War qualifies as NFE. There is minimal nudity, not much blood, and while there is some “alternative” sexuality, what we see is pretty minimal. But the film is indeed “transgressive.”

To be transgressive does not require actual depictions of socially challenging acts or lifestyles, however, though it does help. Although On War does give the viewer quiet a bit to see (a few guns, some raw emotion, some nudity, some blood) so much of the film happens in the gaps, the “What could that be referring to?” moments of the film. You see, On War is not without its Charlie Kaufman qualities. For instance, what is Bertrand reading at the beginning of the film, and why does he keep referring to it? Why does Bertrand, a filmmaker, share the same first name as the filmmaker of On War? Who is the man who introduces Bertrand to the mansion? What’s with the voice over lifted from Apocalypse Now? What’s with all the masks? What’s with that giant dog? All of these questions allow the film’s greatest moments to play out not on the screen (though there are many during the entire 2 plus hours of film), but rather in your mind and in the conversations you will no doubt be having after seeing the piece.

So, my suggestion? Find a place that’s showing the film. Don’t bring your grandmother unless she’s one of those really cool and progressive ones. And enjoy! When it’s over discuss, discuss, discuss. You will (should) be altered from the experience.

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Manny Lage (10 years ago) Reply

Do you have any idea if the french dvd release has any sort of subtitles, either in english or spanish?

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Anonymous (8 years ago) Reply

Great review sir!


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