The Performance of History: Demain des l’aube

History, as defined by its own disciplinary parameters, would seemingly always exist separate from the acts of performance, production, creation, and invention.  After all, the “looking back” that is required from history’s intellectual demands emphasizes understanding how and why performance, production, creation, and invention occurred.  Writing majors can create poems, theater majors can perform plays, and engineering  majors may create and invent computer programs.   And these poems, plays, and inventions may eventually be admired and studied by future students in those fields. Yet history students cannot “invent” or “create” battles, elections, and revolutions.  They can examine what has already been, offer analysis as to why it came to be, and uncover that which had previously went unnoticed.  But they cannot produce the central object of their own study. 

History’s inability to be performative or creative is what makes historical re-enactments so very odd.  Whether men and women are re-enacting scenes from the American Civil War, The American Revolution, the founding of Jamestown, or, as in Denis Dercourt‘s Demain des l’aube, the Napoleonic Wars, the re-enactments are never in the service of understanding history. Certainly, one must understand how people lived to “re-enact” the history, but if one already knows how a particular history was actually “enacted,” re-enacting it will not produce any new knowledge about that first enactment.

Demain des l’aube (Tomorrow at Dawn), which played at The French Film Festival – Richmond, VA, looks at two brothers who become entwined within the world of historical re-enactment.  They engage in re-enacting scenes from the Napoleonic Wars, but their engagement with the history produces not historical knowledge but a self-satisfaction that comes from attempting to fully live out a fantasy.

The brother most captivated by recreating France’s Imperial past is Paul, played by Jeremie Renier, who, yes, would pass for the French version of Jeremy Renner.  Paul works a dead-end job in a factory and still lives in his childhood home with his mother.  He classically displays every attribute of a man in his thirties who has “failed to lauch.”  His room is filled with military miniatures, and there is nothing he loves to do more than put on his authentic Napoleonic military attire.  He becomes transformed; no longer is he a failed, broken down man without prospects.  Paul is a dashing war hero who impresses fellow pseudo-soldiers and dazzles elegant ladies.

Paul’s brother, Mathieu (Vincent Perez), needs no assistance from antique clothes in order look dashing.  Mathieu is a world-renowned pianist and has a gorgeous wife and a lovely young son.  His life would seem to be ideal.  Yet his devotion, or obsession, with music parallels his brother’s obsession with history.  And while Mathieu’s obsession might seem romantic and admirable in that it can produce art and money, it nonetheless strains his relations with those most close to him.

Mathieu must leave his family to tend to his mother, who is ill, and his brother, who apparently still needs adult supervision.  Mathieu’s stay with his brother and mother, who must eventually be hospitalized, leads him back into the historical-fantasy world of his brother.  Mathieu looks askew at his brother’s fascination, but, when involved, he too becomes engrossed.  Initially, he appears to be placating a brother for whom he feels sorry, but Mathieu does relish the involvement and plays the part of a Napoleonic war hero with the same virtuosity with which he plays the piano.  He is able to enrapture an audience with a tale of heroism in the same manner that he can enrapture them with gorgeous melodies.  (The film’s musical score, by the way, is terrific: a perfect compliment to the subject matter.)

Unlike his brother, Mathieu can recognize the limit of the performance, and he becomes distraught and upset when others and his brother do not.  For those such as Paul who live for re-enactment, the re-enactment becomes their life.  They identify themselves not with their actual names and job titles, but with their historical names and military rank.  This is what makes them feel important; this is how they derive self-worth.  Being a nurse’s aid or factory work simply cannot compare with the honor and glory of the battlefield. 

Mathieu’s real life becomes complicated by the fantasy lives of his brother and the rest of the re-enacters.  Re-enacters who seek to rope him into continuing with a duel intrude on a romantic conversation between Mathieu and his wife  and malevolently stalk him at his mother’s home.  In this respect, they are just as dangerous as the soldiers they so desperately seek to emulate.  Of course, to Paul and the others this is normal; this is their life.  They do not have families or careers, or, if they do, such things do not carry the weight of a duel at dawn.

Dercourt’s film does a wonderful job of examining and exploring the limits of fantasy and performance and how people can damage themselves and those that they love by failing to recognize proper boundaries.  The characters who engage in the re-enactments live increasingly isolated, singular lives, lives dedicated to fulfilling their own fantasies.  Unlike Mathieu’s piano playing, the re-enactments never offer the possibility of positively effecting the lives of others.  They are performances intended for the performers alone, and in this respect they seem rather selfish.  As viewers, we are compelled not by how they perform, but by why they perform.  At the very least, Mathieu’s obsession with his music might produce something of which his wife and son could be proud.  The re-enacters seem ashamed to admit their fantasy lives to those who do not share their same passion.

Dercourt balances complex and rather dark themes with black humor.  Soon after Mathieua slices the cheek of a rival in a duel (a violation of the rules), Mathieu and Paul speed away in a car.  The contrast between the dedication to emulate the early nineteenth century and the immediate need to escape in an automobile elicits laughter while prompting further inquiry into the bifurcated nature of the entire endeavor.  In this episode, “reality” allows them to escape from the consequences of their actions within the fantasy world; reality and fantasy have switched places. 

The film is also technically proficient.  Keeping with the theme of music, the score is, as mentioned above, quite good, and the sound editing is rather remarkable.  Indeed, the sounds of the fake battles are louder and more immediate than the sounds of the character’s actual reality.  Gunshots and clanging swords are particularly vibrant.  The cinematography of Demain des l’aube also plays upon the notions of fantasy and reality.  The scenes of Imperial glory were wonderfully lit in colorful, spacious fields.  The monotony of daily life was far less colorful and much more enclosed.  Visually, the fantasy presented more freedom, which indeed it has.  Reality is always more confining, which is exactly why characters such as Paul seek to escape it.

It is difficult to pin down exactly what Demain des l’aube is: drama, black comedy, a deconstructive examination of art’s relation to history, a commentary upon self-identification.  Yet it is intriguing and worth a viewing. 

(If you want more information and insight, check out the French Film Festival’s write-up and interview with Dercourt.)

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
This entry was posted in Essays, film studies, History, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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