We Were One Man
(Nous Etions Un Seul Homme)


Philippe Vallois

Starring: Serge Avedikian, Piotr Stanislas, Catherine Albin, Lucien Guerin

Unrated, 90 minutes

Wild Reeds
(Les Roseaux Sauvages)

Andre Techine

Olivier Massart,
Gilles Taurand

Starring: Elodie Bouchez, Gael Morel, Stephane Rideau, Frederic Gorny, Michele Moretti, Jacques Nolot

Unrated, 110 minutes

Life During Wartime
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, July, 1999
We Were One Man Updated November, 2009



Wartime brings out the best and the worst in people. Alliances are often formed however in the unlikeliest of places...even queer ones. We Were One Man, and the critically acclaimed Wild Reeds, are two exceptional French films which both explore the consequences of male love during seasons of great crisis.

We Were One Man (1980) is an offbeat love story written and directed by Philippe Vallois. The year is 1943 and World War II rages on. A young peasant named Guy lives in an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of a French village and longs for a friend to share his loneliness. His wish is granted one day when he finds Rolf, a wounded German soldier, in the woods. Guy takes him back home and nurses him back to health. For reasons unclear in the beginning, (except to a gay audience), Rolf remains at the cottage and does not want to return to his troops. He realizes that he is developing feelings for his savior.

Guy is friendly with a young woman named Janine, though their relationship seems mostly rooted in carnal pleasures. Guy is obsessed with sex and often visits prostitutes in the village. He is also fascinated by Rolf, but appears to be interested in him mostly for his company. But if that's the case, why does he almost lovingly touch his nose to see if he is awake when he first brings him home? Why does he also keep initiating activities which involve physical contact? And, especially, why does he drag his bed into Rolf's room?

Their relationship is complicated. Guy seems to like Rolf but he often cries "Ho murderer!" whenever they meet. Both men are obsessed with contests to decide who is the strongest. Neither knows what to make of the other. "French people like you, I run them over with my tank," Rolf tells Guy when he first arrives. "I am stronger than you!" Guy replies and playfully extends his arm. They vigorously arm wrestle while a phallic wine bottle quivers on the table between them.

Guy's character is reminiscent of Roberto Begnini's slapstick persona in films like Life is Beautiful and The Monster. He is a harmless buffoon who just wants to be liked. Rolf is the film's most complex figure. He is not your stereotypical Nazi. Yes, he is blonde and he is beautiful. He speaks of running over French people in a tank, but he also wears a ribbon around his arm that was given to him by a Jewish girl that he once rescued. Even though Guy should be his enemy, he is attracted to him and is confused by it. When Guy asks Rolf if he was dreaming of a girl, Rolf replies "If I were a girl, it would explain why I was here."

We Were One Man is, in turns, both a charming and an unsettling film. The war, inevitably, intrudes on their idyllic reverie. One day in the village, Guy witnesses the beating of a naked man for having helped a German. In another scene he finds a farmhouse filled with slaughtered people and takes home their record player, oblivious to the war that is happening all around him. Hints are dropped that Guy might be "mad." His behavior is certainly eccentric. Guy accuses the Nazis of killing madmen, and Rolf nods when he is asked "If I was mad, would you kill me?" Later, he admits to escaping from an asylum during a bombing and wandering in the woods until he found this cottage. Rolf responds by gently kissing his terrified friend. Phillipe de Broca's classic film, King of Hearts (1966), asked if the inmates in the asylum or the people fighting the war were the ones were really insane. We Were One Man features two men who should be enemies in a time of war. But despite their different ideologies, the two men bond instead.

We Were One Man is a very European film in structure and mood, overwhelmed with details too plentiful to digest in a single viewing. But I have to be honest and report that it is awkwardly photographed and edited in spots, and the music is sometimes obtrusive and doesn't fit the action. What it may lack in studio polish, however, it more than makes up with fine acting and characterizations.

[Reviewer's update 2009: It's been over a decade since I last saw this film. I hadn't even thought about it until last year, when I watched and reviewed Johan: Mon ete 75, and discovered that both films were directed by the same man. I had no way of seeing We Were One Man again because the movie was out of print. I had rented it, in 1999, on VHS from the much missed Rainbow Pride shop, which occupied part of the equally missed Buffalo gay bar, Buddies. Frank Ball, the shop's owner had a number of queer films that aren't currently available on DVD (Together/Alone and I'll Love You Forever...Tonight - also reprinted from Outcome on this site - fall into this category too). I am thrilled to report that Waterbearer Films has just released the film on DVD.
I am amazed by how much of this film I had forgotten. In the original review, I wrote that Guy's "behavior is certainly eccentric." That's putting it mildly. I also have no idea why I wrote that he was a "harmless buffoon." He seems that way at first (which might be why I wrote it that way) but the man is certifiable! Guy is probably meant to represent a metaphor for the war and if ever a film set out to show the madness of war, this one is it.
Like Johan, this is an uneven film but its strengths almost cancel out its weaknesses. There is nothing rational about the plot and yet our emotions remain engaged. As far as character goes, these two guys are just a step away from Shakespeare's Hamlet in that they share behavior that is so unpredictable that it almost defies analysis. Guy is clearly insane but why does Rolf keep returning to him again and again? This will either intrigue, or irritate, viewers.
I was reminded of another film that I reviewed last year, Chris Newby's 1996 Madagascar Skin. Both films shared a similar situation in which one man rescues another and they reside together in a cottage rife with sexual tension. The two men are constantly wrestling, fighting and playing like children, and the film is a perpetual tease. Why does Guy lick Rolf's back and then push the German away when he tries to kiss him? You sit there, thinking: Are these guys going to go for it or not? When they finally do, it is one of the most intense scenes of raw animal passion between two men that this reviewer has ever seen. Remember too that this filmed thirty years ago!

The ending of We Were One Man will surely divide viewers. It is hard to decipher whether Guy's final act is born out of revenge or from a perverse idea of friendship but the film's closing image is one that you will never forget. Phillipe Valois' contributions to queer cinema are a bit on the unusual side but his refusal to conform to conventional filmmaking is to be commended. Seeing it again, my biggest criticism is still the silly and inappropriate background music; the scenes that were allowed to play out in silence are far more effective. But, all in all, the return to home video of this forgotten classic is most welcome.]

More On Philippe Vallois:
Johan: Mon ete 75


In Andre Techine's Wild Reeds, (1994), the war takes place on another continent but it still affects the lives of all concerned. The bloody conflict in Algiers provides the backdrop for this bittersweet coming of age story about four youths (two straight, one gay, one bi) in 1962 France. Maite is a young teen-aged girl who is both a Communist and a feminist. Her best friend, Francois, is discovering that he has feelings for Serge, a fellow student at his boarding school. Serge lusts for Maite, while Henri - aged 21 and a French-Algerian exchange student - is a free-spirited youth with feelings for all three of them.

To Francois' surprise, Serge seeks out his friendship in order to better his grades. He also says they can help each other get girls because they are both opposites. Francois at first refuses. Then, in a very telling visual moment, Serge shoves some test answers into the front of his trousers. Francois suddenly unbuttons the bottom of Serge's shirt and pulls the answers out of his pants.

Henri walks in on the two boys after they have traded test answers in the lavatory and accuses Francois of fornicating with Serge in the toilet. "I understand," he says, "At your age I was the same way. Why deprive yourself of life's pleasures?" That night, Serge sits down on Francois' bed to inquire if he ever masturbates and then asks if he would like to do it with him. After a few minutes, Francois puts his arm around Serge and the two boys make love. It is one of the gentlest moments of young love and affection ever filmed.

Francois falls in love with Serge, but is disappointed when he discovers that Serge is more interested in his "girlfriend," Maite. He continues to savor every moment that they are together while longing to repeat their one night of passion. One night he looks longingly at Henri's bed. When he reaches to touch his shoulder, Henri awakes and tells him to "go for it." Francois panics and walks into the lavatory. There, he stares at himself in the mirror and declares "I am a faggot" repeatedly until the scene fades to black.

Adolescence with its onset of adult hormones can be the most confusing time in a person's life. The confusion here is compounded by the war in Algiers, which affects all of them in various ways. Maite's mother is a teacher at the boys' school and she refused to help Serge's older brother desert from the army. When he is killed in the war, she suffers a nervous breakdown. His brother's death causes Serge to feel hostile to the orphaned Henri, an Algerian sympathizer. Francois, however, is drawn to Henri, even though the rest of the boys in the school shun him.

Wild Reeds' main emphasis is the tender and turbulent friendship between Francois and Serge. But it is Maite who remains the emotional center of the film. She is old and wise beyond her years, perhaps because of her mother's political beliefs. She is uninterested in sex, yet thinks of Francois as her boyfriend. When Francois tells her that he slept with a boy, she understands, even though she later calls him an "immature bourgeois faggot."

The film's title comes from The Oak and the Reed, a fable by La Fontaine that is the subject of a classroom lesson. In the fable, the oak tells the reed that "nature did you wrong" and boasts of its strength while the reed insists that it "fear[s] not the wind, I bend without breaking." The tree is uprooted in a storm while the reed remains standing. The main characters can be seen as being reeds themselves, wild and undisciplined, but resilient and able to weather both the political and sexual storms around them.

Director Techine's attention to detail in Wild Reeds is marvelous. The story enfolds in a warm and engaging manner and features superbly realized adolescents that would be at home in a film by the great Francois Truffaut. Wild Reeds is easy to watch and enjoy, though some historical knowledge of the Algerian conflict is useful for understanding the characters' motivations. (And I have to admit that my last exposure to the subject was when I saw Pontecorvo's The Battles of Algiers in my college film class almost twenty years ago.)

Each of the principals is a uniquely developed persona brought fully to life by a terrific and natural ensemble of young actors. Unlike many American films that deal with teen-agers, the teachers and adults are also rendered with care, rather than being mere cartoons. To the film's credit, Techine does not try to wrap everything up in a neat and contrived bundle at the end. It is a warm and very likable (and partially autobiographical) tale that can stand with the best of Truffaut and Renoir.

Both films are in French with subtitles and, due to their subject matter, are definitely not Blockbuster fodder. I rented both videos at Rainbow Pride located inside Buddies at 31 Johnson Park.


More On Andre Techine:
The Witnesses

More On Gael Morel and Stephane Rideau:
Three Dancing Slaves

More On Stephane Rideau:
Come Undone



Reviewer's note, 2007: Interjecting a bit of autobiography and historical context here. In many of my older reviews there are references to these films being unavailable at Blockbuster Video. Times have changed, but in the 90s, that was the case. They were a "family store." Blockbuster's policy back then (since changed) of not carrying NC-17 or unrated films forced many filmmakers to emasculate their films to get an R rating so Blockbuster "the family store" would carry it. .I usually reported if the films were available for rent at Buffalo's two funkiest video stores - Mondo Video, which was owned by the film critic from Artvoice Magazine, M. Faust, and was the place to go to get the hard to find titles - and Rainbow Pride, a gay gift shop run by Frank Ball; he also rented videos. For years, his store was the front room in a popular gay bar, Buddies.

Anyway, when I wrote this review you could not find titles like these at Blockbuster. And I often ranted about it. I've left them in these reviews as I put them online because they are a kind of time capsule. Because early in the millennium there was a changing of the guard at Blockbuster. You could rent Queer as Folk there now! Their old policy of no gay films and no unrated films was gone, finished. And that was good news for filmmakers and film lovers everywhere. I even ended one of my columns with a public service announcement that Blockbuster changed its policies and now carried gay films. I'm not being coerced into writing this, I'm just being fair because that was a big turnaround. Of course it was also around the time I discovered and saw that I could rent almost anything from them. Foreign films, independents and of course queer cinema. This note is just to explain how times have changed (for the better) and it is much easier to find queer titles now, whether for rent or for sale. The internet of course got us out of the dark ages too.