Review: Black and White in Color

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

As the title suggests, Black and White in Color is a film that is deliberately conscious of its medium. In fact, the style of the film is an easy index of its approach to the problems it seeks to address: most of the shots use a long lens, with a narrow depth of field, creating virtually a whole film in portrait-style close, medium-close, and mid-shot compositions with a sharp focus on the central subject, but with hazy background or Limbo for a milieu. This is the stuff of bigger-than-life cinematic caricature; and despite the film’s bows to the complexity of issues involved here (military vs. civilian, officer vs. noncom, ruling class vs. bourgeoisie, civilization vs. savagery). it really does end up treating its characters and their ways of life as matters of black-and-white. Who would have thought, in 1977, that someone still thinks it is significant satire to show sanctimonious priests in the trenches assuring soldiers that “God is on our side”? Or to show a white man enjoying a quaint native song that, when translated, proves to be a litany of insults to the white man? How original an anti-war statement is it to have a group of civilians stage a Renoiresque picnic on the edge of the battlefield, cautioning one another not to “get too close”? The idea of the film is itself the stuff of which heavyhanded allegory is made: the staging of World War I in miniature between French colonists at Fort Coulais, Ivory Coast, and German colonists at a nearby outpost.

But if Black and White in Color starts out to be a satire on the colonialist mentality and/or war itself, it quickly turns into a portrait of Mistah Kurtz, with irony so labored and obvious that Conrad would have recoiled in disgust. The Kurtz-figure is Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser), a pretty-faced young geographer introduced to us in idealistic terms, and with the camera loving his face so much that we have to like the guy. Ultimately Fresnoy, who takes charge of Fort Coulais and its activities in time of war, is worse than the grotesque priests or the lowlife traders in the film; for he, having seen and admired the humanity in the blacks and their way of life, has by film’s end been party to torturing, deceiving, enslaving, and leading to death scores of the black folk, in the name of a cause as irrelevant to himself as it is to them. He at first doesn’t isolate himself from the blacks, and so stands above his fellow whites; but by the final third of the film he has isolated himself from his own countrymen and from humanity itself, becoming a sort of combination Napoleon Bonaparte and T.E. Lawrence, issuing numbered proclamations from a carefully guarded hut inside which he makes love with a mistress as black as the men for whose “enlistment” and death he is responsible (all the while reminding anyone who will listen that “I didn’t want this war”). The only true brother Fresnoy finds is Kraft, the German officer whose surrender to a British Gurkha officer brings the war in the Ivory Coast to a close: the two white men, almost indistinguishable from each other, talk as honorable enemies and stroll into the sunset of their way of life, whose end they themselves have helped to bring about. And the upshot of it all, as one of the French traders says, is that “the niggers who were German are now English—and it serves them right, too.”

The “niggers,” of course, endure; but for all its posing, the film never shows any real sympathy for their plight, and the characters and doings of the white men are so distanced by caricature and exaggeration that we are safely amused by them, never feeling the sting of embarrassment or guilt. Annaud’s satirical blade is as blunt-edged as the violence depicted in the battle scenes, which never effectively bring home the reality of the suffering visited on the blacks by these quarreling white men. A lot of people are shot; but the only violence that really hurts in this film is a couple of face slaps delivered by white supremacists on uppity “niggers”. These hurt because they are personal—something which, except for these two instances, Black and White in Color never manages to be.

© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow

BLACK AND WHITE IN COLOR
Direction: Jean-Jacques Annaud. Screenplay: Annaud and Georges Conchon. Cinematography: Claude Agostini. Sets: Max Douy. Editing: Francoise Bonnot, Michelle Boehm. Music: Pierre Bachelet. Production: Arthur Cohn, Jacques Perrin, Giorgio Silvagni.
The players: Jean Carmel, Jacques Dufilho, Catherine Rouvel, Jacques Spiesser, Dora Doll, and inhabitants of Niofouin, Côte d’Ivoire.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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