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Gaston's War

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  • Noel Vera
    Battle of the Belge Noel Vera It’s that time of the year again, Cine Europa, part four, where we are faced with the prospect of ten of what the European
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 12, 2001
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      Battle of the Belge

      Noel Vera

      It�s that time of the year again, Cine Europa, part four, where we are faced
      with the prospect of ten of what the European Union likes to call �the best
      they have to offer,� all for free, and all at the Shangri La Mall�s The
      Cinema. Opening the festival--not for any apparent reason except Belgium
      happens to be acting president of the Union--is Robbe De Hert�s �Gaston�s

      The film�s premise--that Gaston Vandermeerssche (Werner De Smedt), a courier
      for British intelligence, was very possibly a pawn used to convince the
      Germans that the Allies planned to invade the Netherlands--seems both
      brilliant and compelling, worthy of the espionage novels of John Le Carre or
      Graham Greene. Based on a biography by Allan Mayer, the film sketches
      Vandermeerssche�s career, first as guide and escort to escaping Jews and
      British pilots shot down in occupied France, then as leader of a spy network
      in the Netherlands. Along the way he faces constant danger of capture and
      torture, and the very real possibility that his comrades--especially, as the
      film constantly likes to put it, the unreliable Dutch--will betray him to
      the Nazis.

      In a parallel development, the film also follows the story of Nicky (the
      lovely Olivia Williams), a secretary working in London�s intelligence
      offices, and her growing suspicion that the British have no real intentions
      of supporting Gaston and his tiny Netherlands operation--that, in fact, they
      have other priorities, elsewhere.

      That�s the story. The film itself makes full use of the French
      landscape--running from the Nazis can�t be all that bad when you�re crossing
      such breathtaking scenery, breathing exquisitely fresh air, having delicious
      rustic meals washed down with excellent wine prepared by helpful peasants.

      Actually, Gaston has it made all around. Not only does he have beautiful
      Veronique (Mapi Galan) to have and to hold in France, but when forced to
      flee to the Netherlands he manages to recruit pretty Violette (Sabrina
      Leurquin) as novice and handsome Madame Visser--Sylvia Kristel, of
      �Emmanuelle� and �Mata Hari� fame--as senior agent in his network. And, on
      top of that, he has Nicky worrying about him, long-distance, from London.

      One might wish for more rigorous storytelling--the way the film is set up,
      there�s very little doubt that the British, in the guise of Major Smith
      (Peter Firth, the cad), are putting one over our noble Belgian hero. For
      another (skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the film), the
      postwar Belgian government freely recognizes Gaston�s contributions to the
      war effort by promoting him captain--and still he insists on trying to sift
      through the debris. Does he crave British recognition over that of his
      fellow countrymen? Why? We never saw this side of him before, and the
      moment it�s suggested it�s just as quickly dropped--as if the implications
      are too messy to handle for a film trying to do a canonization job.

      If we want a more provocative look into the mindset of a World War 2 agent,
      better examples come to mind: John Frankenheimer�s �The Train,� where Burt
      Lancaster and friends try stop a Nazi train loaded with France�s finest art
      treasures from crossing the border; or Jean Pierre Melville�s great �The
      Shadow Army,� where the story of one group of Resistance fighters is told in
      the cold, fatalistic manner of a noir thriller. �The Train� shows up the
      essentially silly nature of most espionage operations--who would really care
      if the major Van Goghs and Picassos in the world were stolen, aside from art
      critics? �The Shadow Army� shows the essentially silly nature of life
      itself, where everything comes down to a long tunnel, a waiting machine gun,
      and the order for you to run as fast and as far as you can. Or it can be as
      casual as the announcement of the doctor of a captured agent to his fellow
      agents (dressed as doctors and nurses in an attempt to rescue him) that the
      patient is too sick to move at all, and will die soon. As the agents drive
      away, Melville zooms mercilessly in on their impassive faces, probing for
      evidence of the emotions that must undoubtedly be churning inside. The
      faces show nothing--nothing at all.

      �Gaston�s War,� in comparison, feels more like a lighthearted romp--crossing
      picturesque fields, bedding even more picturesque women, playing the
      picturesque hero--Gaston has it made, all right, until he�s betrayed by the
      Allies and captured by the Nazis. But he comes out all the more heroic in
      the end, and if the Allies fail to acknowledge his part in the war effort,
      this film more than makes up for the lack--actually overcompensates to the
      point of incredulity. He�s got it made, though possibly the idea that full
      and actual justice can be done to the story of Gaston--well, that might have
      to wait a little longer, another movie altogether, perhaps. This one is
      more like a James Bond flick for the arthouse audience.

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)

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