Film of the Week: Far From Men
In Albert Camus’s 1942 novel L’Étranger (variously translated as The Outsider and The Stranger), the Algerian killed by the anti-hero Meursault has no name: he’s simply l’Arabe. That omission recently prompted Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud to write a book that has—as you can imagine in the year of the Charlie Hebdo massacre—been much discussed of late, The Meursault Investigation, in which the anonymous character’s death is discussed by his brother, and in which he at last is given a name, Moussa. The absence of a name might be read not as a cavalier oversight on Camus’s part, but as an indication of the callousness of Meursault, and of French colonial society, towards North Africans. But in Camus’s short story “The Guest,” published in the 1957 collection Exile and the Kingdom, an Algerian character is again referred to simply as l’Arabe. This is all the more surprising, since the story involves the emergence of a solidarity between this man and the Algerian-born European who is assigned to act as his temporary custodian.
In David Oelhoffen’s new film Far From Men, the Arab finally gets a name, Mohammed, and a face: he’s played by the craggy-featured Reda Kateb, who has been a prominent new presence in French cinema since his supporting role in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. He played the male lead in Claire Simon’s intriguing essay in Paris psychogeography Gare du Nord (13) and was even one of the few semi-saving graces of Ryan Gosling’s preposterous Lost River.
Camus’s story is about a white man born in Algeria, Daru (Viggo Mortensen), who after World War II is assigned to work as a teacher in a remote village in the Atlas Mountains. One day, the Arab is delivered to his door, hands bound; the local law officer instructs Daru to escort the man to a nearby town to face trial for murdering his cousin. Daru refuses, but is told he has no choice; the background to the story, which Oelhoffen specifies is set in 1954, is the outbreak of unrest in Algeria, which led to full-scale war and beyond that, to the country’s hard-won independence. The Arab spends a night in Daru’s schoolhouse, ostensibly as prisoner but really as guest; simply sharing a sleeping space, Camus’s story specifies, creates “a sort of brotherhood.” Daru declines to deliver his guest to justice, but gives him the choice between walking towards his trial and taking the other direction, to liberty; Mohammed’s choice in the film is not the same as that of Camus’s Arab, and is less resonant. But the upshot for Daru in the short story is a bitter payoff which gives “The Guest” its full philosophical dimension as an existentialist parable of choice and consequence.
On paper, the story is concise, big on description of the austere landscape of the Atlas in winter, and concentrates on the two men’s night in the school and their parting the next day. Oelhoffen spins Camus’s anecdote into a full-blown adventure yarn, turning the short walk from school to town into a proper odyssey over brutal terrain, as Daru and Mohammed leave the road to evade pursuers. Oelhoffen, in fact, has made something that it’s impossible not to describe as a North African Western, and there are plenty of visual clues to this being just what he has in mind: the clincher for me was a shot of the exterior of the schoolhouse, a wooden pillar on its porch suddenly looking very Tex-Mex indeed.
Shot by Guillaume Deffontaines—who brought out the parched austerity of Provence in Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915—Far From Men is a compellingly austere figures-in-a-landscape film, and the second we’ve seen Mortensen in this year. He must like walking, and must especially enjoy the challenge of bleak rocky terrain, since this film’s Atlas is a lot like the lunar-looking Patagonia he rambled over in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja. Far From Men presents a journey to be undertaken in dogged silence, on foot over sharp crests and hostile stretches of plateau. At one point, Daru and Mohammed take a tumble down a slope of scree, and neither makes a sound of protest. Oelhoffen’s intensely male film, like the considerably weirder Jauja, lies at the conjunction of existential odyssey and extreme hiking.
The film is most impressive when it emulates the taciturnity of the characters in Camus’s story, for which these actors are supremely suited. Kateb’s hyper-contained performance, coupled with his imposing Easter Island features, make us suspect that Mohammed is a man who will eventually reveal a startling hidden truth—as indeed he does, when his backstory emerges. There’s a wonderful shot of him staring straight into camera—or toward his fate—and he seems to have turned his face into a blind mask, he’s so enigmatic. And Mortensen again proves to be one of today’s few actors who can evoke quiet self-sufficiency and absolute resolution, à la Gary Cooper. The odd fragility of his features—he truly looks here like a man who has been reduced by solitude and ascetic living to the barest necessary husk of self—convinces us totally that Daru is a modern anchorite as well as an ex-soldier who has known terrible times.
Oelhoffen’s film is good on the dogged, silent trekking through arid heat or pouring rain, the nights spent camping out in abandoned villages. There’s a nice understated sign of cultural difference—and affinity—as the two men sit down to dinner in the school, Mohammed washing his hands, Daru crossing himself. But Oelhoffen is also good on taut, tough-guy confrontations—of which there are several, both with Arabs and French, equally hostile to the two men—and action sequences. The film suddenly bursts into agitated life after a night camping with an Algerian detachment led by an old army buddy of Daru’s, Slimane (Djemel Barek), who fought with him in Italy. In the morning, the men all emerge into blazing daylight and into the path of a French army ambush, as editing and handheld camerawork erupt in a flurry of galvanized nerviness.
But to expand Camus’s slender story to 101 minutes, Oelhoffen decides to say a lot more than the basic dramatic situation necessarily demands. A film among laconic men in the tightest of situations becomes oddly over-demonstrative. There’s a good case to be made for the dramatic effectiveness of Mohammed’s expanded backstory here—Oelhoffen has him explain that he killed his cousin to protect his family, but that he now intends to face the death sentence so that his family, which can’t afford the traditional diya (blood money) won’t be subject to the laws of vengeance. It’s a neat, unanswerable riposte to Daru’s accusation that the man lacks courage and honor.
However, Oelhoffen’s script is less effective when it articulates Daru’s situation: Slimane points out that, old comrades as they are, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill Daru if they were on opposite sides in the new war, which they would be if Daru refused to support the Algerian cause. Elsewhere, Daru talks about his own background: he was born in Algeria, the son of Spanish immigrant workers (known as caracoles, or snails, because they carry their possessions on their back). It’s an effective piece of realist background, but it leads to Oelhoffen overdoing it when Daru says: “For the French we were Arabs. Now for the Arabs, we’re French”—just too self-consciously a good line to work. The worst misjudgment of this kind comes when Daru says—not once but twice—that a French army officer has done wrong in having his men fire on opponents who have laid down their weapons. It’s a war crime, he points out. To which the officer replies that he was only following orders and that his job is to clear the plateau of terrorists. I think we’d have understood just as well the implications of his deed in the present-day, as well as in the context of World War II, if Oelhoffen hadn’t spelled them out; Daru’s terse refusal to return the man’s salute would have been communicated more than all the talk.
Oelhoffen finally puts his neo-Western cards on the table when the two men show up at the traditional saloon-cum-whorehouse, or rather cantina—since it’s run by a Spanish lady of a certain age (the revered Angela Molina). This episode allows for a complicit though muted smile between the two men, putting the decidedly heterosexual seal on their cross-cultural bromance.
Oelhoffen’s second feature (I haven’t seen 2007’s In Your Wake) shows him to be a director of more confidence than subtlety, the latter best supplied by the muted steeliness of his two leads. But the film’s visual stamp sticks in your consciousness: the shadow of slats in an empty house resembling a cave, Kateb’s dead stare, the pink-streaked sky over imposing ’Scope sweeps of craggy desolation. The images are accompanied with appropriate terseness by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s super-spare score, at its best when it veers away from ambient eeriness towards the abrasive scrape of violin or an ominous tremor of reedy organ. Oelhoffen may overstate both his case and the story’s set-jawed maleness, but as neo-Westerns go, Far From Men is an inventive and haunting appropriation of the genre. (And you can say what you like: any film in which the sound of a rifle shot is followed by a horse’s plaintive neigh is a Western). Meanwhile, the question remains: after speaking Spanish and Danish in Jauja, and French, Arabic, and Spanish here, what languages will the impressively polyglot Mortensen tackle next—and need he ever bother with English, or Elvish, again?