Review: Trenches (2021)

Venezia 78
Out of Competition

Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

“Our dear friends,” a Ukrainian soldier calls the unseen enemy in Loup Bureau’s new documentary. He is referring to the Russian backed separatists in the distance beyond no man’s land. He spies from above the trench. No man’s land? Trenches? You might be asking. What is this 1917? Bureau’s film seems to suggest it is. Shot in a beautiful black and white and featuring extended tracking shots as it follows soldiers down the warren of fortifications – self-consciously referencing Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory – the filmmaker insists that this forgotten war on the eastern reaches of Europe is a throwback to the kind of atritional warfare of position which was supposed to never happen again. Soldiers with pickaxes and shovels digging in the shale like ground, occasionally using explosives to assist their efforts. In their downtime, they lounge around smoking endless cigarettes and talking about girls who promised they would wait but didn’t. Occasionally, they cower as bombs drop around them, shaking their frankly inadequate shelters. Occasionally, they exchange fire. A heavy machine gun spits out cartridges towards the camera.

But is it like the First World War? In terms of magnitude and loss of life obviously not. And the decision to film this in black and white is in dubious taste. It seems like an obvious attempt to elevate the soldiers and render the conflict poetic. The blood and the wounded happen off screen. I’m not clamouring to see that. At the moment, we can see enough of it on the news. But to watch this war being fought without any real indication of the cost feels like a dereliction of duty on the part of the filmmaker. A lurking doubt remains: this is something of a phony war. The young men spend their time playing Call of Duty and practicing their knife throwing skills. They get haircuts and watch kids riding pigs on YouTube while their commander tries to find out what was going on over the phone. Nothing seems to work and the lone voice of reason comes from the only woman in the film, Oxana who confides to the camera that her comrades are just kids: “It’s a nursery; their heads are full of air, drafts.” She plays with a kitten and an older soldier has a farting dog.

Ultimately, Bureau has made something close to propaganda. Deprived of any context, decidedly partisan and one-sided, his stated aim is to raise awareness of the Ukrainian cause and the courage of these soldiers. Fair enough. But to grace war with the arch aesthetics of black and white and to have Gustave Rudman Rambali’s admittedly beautiful score ramp up the emotions as the soldiers prepare for a final mission leaves the brackish taste of manipulation in the mouth. Just to be absolutely clear. I am not disagreeing with Bureau taking sides in the conflict, partly because I don’t know enough about it. The problem is that by the end I still didn’t know enough about it. The exact same film could have been made on the other side, with the same gloss of HD beauty and inconsequential humanistic detail. Hell, I’m sure they’ve got kitten too.

Original Title: Trenchées
Country: France
Language: Ukrainian
Runtime: 85′
Production: Unité (Caroline Nataf)
Written/ Directed by: Loup Bureau
Cinematographer: Loup Bureau
Editors: Léo Gatelier, Catherine Catella
Sound: Jérôme Wiciak
Music: Gustave Rudman Rambali
Sales: Film Boutique