War Is Over, The (1966) (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: Dec 26, 2023
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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War Is Over, The (1966) (Blu-ray Review)


Alain Resnais

Release Date(s)

1966 (November 28, 2023)


Europa Film/Sofracima (The Film Desk/Vinegar Syndrome)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A

The War Is Over (1966) (Blu-ray)

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La Guerre est finie (The War Is Over, 1966) was revelatory, at least for this reviewer. I was never much of a fan of its director, Alain Resnais (1922-2014), best remembered for his first two features, faves of the art house circuit: Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year in Marienbad (1961). Though associated with the French New Wave, Resnais was really closer to the “Left Bank” artists committed to modernism and left-wing politics, though Resnais’s later films moved in other directions.

Preoccupied with themes of memory and an imagined past, in Last Year at Marienbad particularly, the linear narrative norms of cinema are thrown asunder, leaving audiences baffled by its non-story and nameless characters (though, in print, the three protagonists are unhelpfully called “X,” “A,” and “M.” Both it and Hiroshima mon amour are beautifully photographed, but personally I found (and still find) them archly pretentious and unsatisfying, arty but not particularly artful. If you’re going to junk accepted film language, whatever you replace it with better be just as intriguing.

Conversely, in La Guerre est finie (it’s being marketed under that, rather than its English title) Resnais manages to refine all its interests and singular visual style into a compelling, fascinating (and mostly linear) film. It’s less famous because it explores a topic virtually unknown to English-speaking audiences when it was new, even less so today, and perhaps seen as not commercial and too incendiary besides. Unlike most great directors, Resnais rarely contributed to the screenplays of his films, yet not only followed them fairly rigidly, but also regarded his screenwriters as co-auteurs of equal weight. The writer here is Jorge Semprún (1923-2011), who also wrote Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), and in La Guerre est finie, Semprún’s screenplay is fascinatingly autobiographical.

Set in the present day (1965), the film stars Yves Montand as—well, he goes by many aliases but most frequently as Diego—a communist refugee of the Spanish Civil War, living part of the time as an expatriate in France. Secretly, however, he continues to fight against the fascist Francoist State, using altered French passports on clandestine missions to Spain, something he’s been doing nearly his entire adult life. If discovered in France he would be imprisoned, while if captured in Spain—his activities if not his name is known—he’d almost certainly be executed.

Diego has grown weary of the struggle, the expat communist leadership mostly sending him on nonviolent missions that never amount to much of anything, such as smuggling in flyers calling for a general strike, an uprising of students, etc. Aging veterans of the Spanish Civil War believe a new revolution is imminent, yet Spain has been so normalized through its tourism industry Diego doubts a new civil war or overthrow will ever happen. Worse, Spanish authorities are arresting members of this underground in Madrid and perhaps France.

Back in France, Diego becomes fascinated with (and makes love to) the daughter of a French sympathizer whose passport he used on his latest six-month mission. Nadine (Geneviève Bujold, baby-faced in her film debut), it turns out, is herself part of a radical group of university-age students, passionate but inexperienced Leninists with a homemade bomb. Diego also returns to his longtime lover, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), a Swedish immigrant working as a book designer. (The film is a French-Swedish co-production.) They deeply love one another, clearly, but he’s long absent and able to say very little about his activities.

Short of Maurice Chevalier and maybe Jean Gabin, it’s hard to imagine any actor more French than Montand, so it takes a little time accepting him as a hardened Spaniard, though his performance is so exceptional one buys his character completely soon enough. In La Guerre est finie, Diego, in devoting most of his life to the Cause, has virtually no life or even a name of his own. Told entirely from his perspective, the film’s and his paranoia gradually rubs off on the viewer. Is that a policeman filming him with an 8 mm camera? Is Agnès (Annie Fargue), working as Marianne’s assistant, spying on him or merely exasperatingly curious? Like the characters in Melville’s Army of Shadows, letting one’s guard down for even an instant can mean the difference between life and death. Gradually, the film becomes as intense in this way as the most paranoid film noir.

I honestly had no idea that, decades after the Spanish Civil War, refugees were from countries like France were sneaking dedicated communists into Spain clinging to the hope that Franco might yet be overthrown. Like Montand’s character, Jorge Semprún was exiled communist living in France from 1953 to 1962, sent on long missions into Spain and, similarly, a member of the party’s executive committee until 1964 when he was expelled for reasons much like Diego in the movie. (Semprún also fought for the La Résistance during the Nazi Occupation, reminding us of the baffling but deep resentment held by many French against communist Résistance fighters in The Sorrow and the Pity.)

The only American film I can think of that even remotely resembles La Guerre est finie is Sidney Lumet’s underrated Running on Empty (1988), about a family constantly on the run from the FBI, the politically radical parents having bombed a military research laboratory during the Vietnam War. In that film, as here, the characters are constantly looking over their shoulders, can trust no one, and are forced to lie constantly.

The film’s politics resonate strongly even now—the Spanish Civil War, after all, was one of the first cases of warfare explicitly targeting civilians, chiefly women and children, and infrastructure, and one in which foreign governments like the U.S. were reluctant to criticize the aggressor and, in doing so, appear anti-Catholic, this even after Franco was asked if he planned on murdering half of Spain’s population to achieve his goals, Franco famously responded “Whatever it takes.” Sound familiar? After World War II, exiles in France hoped the Allies would impose a democratically elected government, yet they sided with the Franco fascists, including the U.S., which poured billions into Spain (in exchange for military bases there). That, years later, tourists from Britain and elsewhere blithely soaked up the sun on holidays in Mallorca, income helping to keep Franco in power, while Diego risks execution merely being caught distributing pamphlets is deeply ironic.

Far more accessible than Last Year at Marienbad or Hiroshima mon amour, La Guerre est finie—a clever play on Franco’s declaration at the “end” of the Spanish Civil War, as well as Diego’s gradual realization all his efforts have come to nothing—is superbly photographed by Sacha Vierny, a Resnais regular, who also shot Belle de jour and, later, many of Peter Greenaway’s films. The musical score by Giovanni Fusco, an Antonioni regular, is also exceptional.

In tandem with Resnais’s fidelity to Semprún’s screenplay, the director manages startling but not disruptive emphatically Resnaisian touches—the flashes of memory and imagined flash-forwards, for instance. In the lovemaking scene with Bujold, Resnais positions her away from her bed and against a plain white background, yet it works wonderfully. Both this scene and the lovemaking with Bergman regular Thulin are singularly passionate—hot stuff for American audiences who never got anywhere close to this level of eroticism in a 1966 Hollywood film.

All three stars are excellent. Montand expresses his world-weariness even without dialogue: it’s written all over his face, and while 20 years Bujold’s senior, he’s so ruggedly handsome one can easily see how Nadine would find him attractive. (And he got away with it as late as 1988’s Three Seats for the 26th, the 67-year-old actor opposite 23-year-old Mathilda May.) Thulin, who lived in France part-time during this period, speaks excellent (Swedish-accented?) French in the film, and is as real as Bujold in the film. Marianne’s acceptance of Diego’s mysterious life as a kind of stateless spy forever in harm’s way is quite moving in Thulin’s hands. In smaller roles are familiar French actors, including Michel Piccoli as a border inspector in the first reel, and Paul Crauchet as a fellow communist.

The Film Desk’s new Blu-ray of La Guerre est finie is one of the year’s best releases. Restored in 4K by Gaumont with support from CNC, the 1.66:1 black-and-white film looks stunning throughout. The DTS-HD Master Audio (1.0 mono) is also very good, as are the English subtitles. Apparently in keeping with the original release version, the fair amount of Spanish dialogue here and there is not subtitled, though some of its expository bits are covered through French narration. The disc itself is Region “A” encoded.

The supplements are unusually good and thoughtfully chosen. They include Guernica (1950), an early short documentary by Resnais (and Robert Hessens) about the bombing of the Basque town by Nazis at the behest of Franco, and thus essential viewing here. Also included is an excellent audio commentary track not even listed on the packaging by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin which helps put the film into historical and cinematic context; a fat booklet featuring well-chosen new and archival essays by Jorge Semprún and Marguerite Duras (newly translated by Nicholas Elliott), Michael Caen, Andrew Sarris, and a 1966 interview with Alain Resnais by Robert Benayoun (newly translated by Craig Keller); a newly-created trailer rounds out the extra features.

One of 2023’s best Blu-ray releases, La Guerre est finie is enthusiastically recommended.

- Stuart Galbraith IV