Viewed from either a political or a technical perspective, Black and White in Color—a coproduction from France and the Ivory Coast that won its year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film—is highly impressive. The directorial debut of Jean-Jacques Annaud, Black and White in Color is a slick production with flawless costuming, photography, and production design, transporting viewers to West Africa circa 1915. Scenes inside dusty villages and military encampments are just as visually persuasive as scenes taking place on battlefields that sprawl from unforgiving plains to verdant jungles. Politically, the picture is just as strong, delivering a simple antiwar message by way of a quasi-farcical storyline about imperialist Europeans drawing unsuspecting Africans into pointless armed conflict. Yet there’s sometimes a gulf between ambitions and results. For all of its high-minded goals, Black and White and Color has significant shortcomings, worst of which is a tendency toward shallow characterizations. Annaud and his collaborators stuff the film with so many characters that none can be developed fully, so it’s hard to feel much emotional connection with the people onscreen, beyond normal sympathy for individuals mired in tragic circumstances. Given this weakness, Black and White in Color works better as a statement than as a story.
The gist of the piece is that two European forts are situated in close proximity to each other, one occupied by French colonists and one occupied by Germans colonists. When French geologist Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser) receives a care package containing months-old newspapers, he and his Gallic colleagues learn their country is at war with Germany. Despite the fact that the conflagration has been underway for some time with no impact on their lives, some of the Frenchmen experience a surge of nationalism and resolve to attack the German fort. They recruit natives as soldiers, offering household trinkets as payment. Tragedy, predictably, ensues.
While some of the satirical moments in Black and White and Color are relatively subtle, too many are obvious. In one scene, for instance, a French priest rides in a chair carried by several natives, who sing in their own language about Europeans striking them as obese and odiferous. Oblivious to the meaning of the lyrics, the priest declares, “Oh, how I love this song!” Annaud films everything beautifully, whether he’s using long lenses to capture documentary-style details during crowd scenes or staging a trench-warfare scene in a rainy jungle ravine to amplify the physical discomforts of combat situations. He also gets a few scenes just right, notably the long sequence of a Frenchman leading a group over a tiny stream and pretending it’s the Rhine. Of such delusions horrific jingoistic arrogance is born. Nonetheless, Black and White in Color grows repetitive soon after the “declaration of war,” and it was a miscalculation to avoid making any of the Africans major characters. Annaud conveys considerable anthropological curiosity with his shots of natives going about everyday activities, but he inadvertently relegates Africans to the status of second-class citizens, which is one of the very things he skewers his European characters for doing.
Black and White in Color: FUNKY