‘Officer’s Ward’ implicitly deplores the horrors of war, and yet it does so not through battlefields or continuous barbarism, but through a personal tale with a universal message of struggle and reclamation.
Amidst nationalistic hysteria, Adrien is awaiting his passage to the frontlines of the First World War. He questions the chauvinism and drive to war, but Adrien feels duty bound and compelled to fight. On arrival his life in the battlefields is mercifully short, but the price he pays is extremely high, as a shell explodes in close proximity and brings an end to his part in the war. From here the film changes direction and pace as it submerges you in Adrien’s descent into crisis.
He is taken to the officers’ ward of a hospital in Paris where his recovery begins and the full extent of his injury is revealed to him. Shrapnel has ripped through the middle of his face, splitting it open from the top of his nose through to his jaw. We are spared the graphic visuals but are confronted, as if through Adrien’s eyes, with the horrific consequences–being fed through a tube, struggling to breathe and incapable of speech. In many respects, though, much worse still awaits him.
From here the film deals with Adrien’s struggle to come to terms with his deformity, along with others in the ward. It becomes clear to him that the society he thought he was fighting for would now cast judgement based on his appearance. Mirrors are banned in the ward and visiting friends weep at seeing the patients, such is the impact of their mutilated faces. Suicide is common in the ward as personal trauma is deepened by the flow of dismembered bodies flooding through the door. Here lies a distinction made in the film between the ward, where three men and one woman in similar circumstances unite and rediscover their humour and humanity, and the outside, where inhumane war continues to be waged, supplying endless victims for the beds. The sharp contrast between the group’s personal struggle and the backdrop of war cannot help but portray war as inhumane and futile, but this film is still about more than that.
Discharged and back on the outside again, Adrien experiences a moment of crystallisation that exposes the heart of the film and completes his recovery. Exposed, as he plays a game of peek a boo with a young child, are the constructs of norms and deviancies, acceptability and unacceptability in society. But some, he discovers, are prepared to question this received wisdom and look beyond presentation, as some were prepared to question the war at the height of its popularity.
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