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Review: Week-end à Zuydcoote – Weekend at Dunkirk (1964)

Directed by: Henri Verneuil | 120 minutes | , | Actors: , , Georges Géret, , Pierre Mondy, Marie Dubois, Christian Barbier, , , , , , Nigel Stock, ,

“Week-end à Zuydcoote” is a somewhat atypical Jean-Paul Belmondo . It is not an artistic Godard production with all kinds of cinematic gimmicks, a fragmented storyline, and philosophical reflections. Nor is it a light-hearted or action film, in which he is a tough hero who makes the villain a proverbial head in a comical or otherwise. No, “Week-end à Zuydcoote” is a predominantly serious drama set in a war context. It cannot be called a traditional “war film”, as there are no actual clashes between the different armies, apart from the regular bombardments on the beach at Dunkirk, which the English and French soldiers simply have to undergo and survive. The pointlessness of war as a theme does emerge, as does the feeling of powerlessness and despair. Not cheerful, so, but the film is not too heavy. It is more a registration of events, which is not milked out melodramatically, but only makes the viewer a part of it. And strangely enough, despite a fairly distant way of filming, a bond develops with main character Belmondo, who remains in the retina as a kind of tragic hero or tragic person – because he has not performed many heroic deeds in the story. .

“Week-end à Zuydcoote” is a film that slowly but surely manages to bind the viewer to himself. The first half of the film is a bit of an aimless whole, without much tension and with repetitive moves. The soldiers are temporarily stationed on the beach of Dunkirk and want to arrange a transport to England, which is always unsuccessful due to persistent bombardments. The film follows Julien (Belmondo) with a few bars who work their way through this difficult situation. Sometimes it is only this group that is in the picture, but regularly they join the large group of soldiers on the beach, who are lined up to go home by ship, or have to take cover together from the low flying ones. bombers. In the beginning it is mainly this last aspect, the massiveness, the overview shots of all those soldiers wearing the same green helmets, that keeps the first half of the film somewhat interesting. They are all in this together and with a group are both vulnerable and strong. The different shots of large groups of soldiers sometimes give the impression that it is a film by the communist filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Ultimately, though, there is little encouraging or fraternizing about this sense of community. The soldiers are mowed down again and again and hardly anyone gets to the “finish line”.

Because the escape doesn’t work, there is no tension in the story, and everything comes across as useless and like a dead end, it is difficult to get much interest in the events on the screen. Yet there is drama in this passivity and inability to reach the goal. And when Julien meets Jeanne (Catherine Spaak), who stubbornly stays in her house while the bombs are flying around her, and builds a complex relationship with her, his character also becomes more layered. Not that there is much room for in the film. Hard realism predominates. For example, Julien doesn’t want to beautify the letter to his dead friend’s wife by saying that he died a hero in battle. No, he wants to tell the truth: he died when he went to get water for his friends. The film’s tenor is one of resignation. As Julien states in the film: “It happened as it happened.” So, no, the movie is not moving to a clear, satisfying end point. But this also makes ‘Week-end à Zuydcoote’ sobering and interesting.

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