A naval base in the northern French town of Brest is a bleak and unremarkable setting for writer-director Hélène Fillières’ tale of a young naval officer’s fight for recognition in a patriarchal military world.
This is not an aesthetic film, nor is it one that plays on the heartstrings. It is instead a film with a convoluted message, with subtlety as its strong point.
Raising Colours centres on 23-year-old Laure Baer (Diane Rouxel), who enlists to become an officer in the French Navy after failing to discover her life’s calling as a language and social sciences student at university. She works under the direction of the much older and enigmatic Commandant Rivière (Lambert Wilson), who is nicknamed “The Monk” by his co-workers for his reservation around women he finds attractive.
In this cold institution, where the naval motto “discipline et valeur” (discipline and valour) dictates every move, Laure develops a fascination with her superior, played out through lingering eye contact, muted lighting and strained attempts at emotional connection.
What motivates the characters to seek attachment remains unclear. Rivière flips between fatherly concern and more disturbing amorous desires, while Laure maintains a steady ambition to both challenge and seek approval from her superior, all the while leaving the door open for the pair to become more than just friends.
Fillières throws in feminist undertones, played out through Laure’s determination to succeed in a male-dominated institution and her defiance against Commandant Rivière’s sexist remarks. However, the fact that Laure wants a relationship to develop between her and Rivière – a man who is portrayed as symbolising the male patriarchy and who advocates against her rising up the military ranks – dilutes the feminist message.
A web of subplots fails to add depth and further convolutes the film’s storyline. Laure’s friend’s sexuality, her flailing relationship with her boyfriend and her mother’s career as a famous actress are explored only momentarily.
The highlight is the acting, with both Rouxel and Wilson subtlety conveying a complex relationship without ever verbally expressing their characters’ feelings for each other. Lingering glances and slight hand touching leave much to be said, but still spark a sense of intrigue about where Laure’s and Commandant Rivière’s relationship is headed.
Raising Colours is a film you might expect to see played on SBS late on a Saturday night. It’s confusing, slightly disturbing and very much avant-guard, and is bound to leave some raving while others are simply perplexed.
Raising Colours is showing at Palace Nova Eastend (March 26) and Palace Nova Prospect (April 7) as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival, which opens today and runs until April 18. See the program here.