With recent anti-French sentiment polluting American consciousness recently after the War in Iraq, Home Vision Entertainment's DVD release of Jean-Jacques Annaud's Black and White in Color (Noirs et blancs en couleur) is very timely. Among the many films that explore the absurdity of war, Annaud's first feature film (he had directed only television commercials previously) provides an entertaining fable that is based on real events in early 20th century west Africa. Fortunately, the charming little film surprisingly won the 1977 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, or it likely would have been buried in obscurity since it was a commercial flop upon release.
Ivory Coast locations highlight the satire, which pokes fun of racism and senseless nationalism on its way skewering war in general. Initially difficult to sort out along the lines of Patrice Chereau, the film settles into its characters and story about a small group of French Colonials who go about their daily routines in a small Ivory Coast village: running a shop, teaching, researching, trading, drinking, whoring, etc. Sergeant Bosselet (Jean Carmet) is the lone military man in charge of the French fort, but he spends most of his time drinking and reliving the past. Two Catholic priests (one tall and thin and the other short and stout) serve inadvertently as comic relief. More interested in profits than saving souls, they barter for African goods in exchange for cheap religious tokens and insist on being carried everywhere, leaving them perfect targets for the villagers pointed songs and chants. The priests remark how much they love the music without realizing that their cheerful servants are singing about how fat and stinky they are.
Set against the silly Frenchmen is sensitive and brilliant young researcher/geographer Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser), who finds parallels between the pastoral life of the French countryside and the peaceful villagers and discovers that his biggest challenge is tolerating his snobbish compatriots that maintain a false sense of superiority over the native villagers. An isolated soul, Fresnoy sets himself even more apart from his fellow Frenchmen after taking up with a local African woman, but he's also the only sensible man among the colonials, eventually earning the respect of his countrymen.
News travels slowly from Europe to Africa in 1915, so the colonialists find out that France has declared war on Germany a few months after the fact. They decide to do their part and attack the three Germans just down the river, with comic results. Imagine "La Marseillaise" singing French civilians attempting to recruit and train a poorly equipped militia of non-French speaking African natives to take on German machine guns, and you get the picture.
The well paced comedy develops Fresnoy's character enough to make him a sympathetic protagonist that understands the weaknesses and strengths of his comrades and guides the film through the foibles of the war. The most enjoyable moments hearken to Annaud's vast television commercial experience, as they occur in brief moments. Dry subtle humor predominates and the biggest chuckles are often reserved for the blundering priests and merchants, as seen by the Ivory Coast natives, making this Black and White in Color one of the more enjoyable anti-war films you'll find, helping us forgive Annaud's more recent Seven Years in Tibet.
Adding value to the DVD release, Home Vision Entertainment also packages the 1961 Oscar winning full length documentary The Sky Above, The Mud Below about indigenous people of New Guinea as an extra feature. While both credibly illustrate third world cultures, the real tie-in comes with Arthur Cohn, producer of both films.