During the introductory remarks for Grey Souls, Yves Angelo commented that perhaps the most enduring lesson that had remained with author Philippe Claudel during his years spent working as a prison guard while writing his acclaimed novel was the idea that in such an environment, no one can be completely trusted. This sense of pervasive uncertainty also infuses the atmosphere in the filmmaker’s realization of the dour, haunting and interminably bleak tale, as villagers struggle to carry on some semblance of a normal life in the austere winter of 1917 at a provincial border town, even as the Great War tragically unfolds within earshot of the town and all enlistment-aged men – except for factory workers and local authorities deemed essential services to the civilian population – are being sent off to the battlefield to reinforce the protracted war campaign: an idealistic schoolteacher, Lysia (Marina Hands) who has been recruited by the elementary school to replace a teacher who suffers a nervous breakdown during gas attack drills; a widower prosecutor, Destinat (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who finds a semblance of his late wife in Lysia and begins to pry into her affairs in an attempt to draw himself closer to her; a bombastic mayor (Michel Vuillermoz) who seems more eager in maintaining class order than social order; a frazzled police inspector Mierck (Denis Podalydès) trying to juggle the responsibilities of law enforcement and impending fatherhood. Structured through a series of elliptical flashbacks that obliquely trace the progress of an overarching murder investigation of the innkeeper’s lovely young daughter, Belle (Joséphine Japy) found strangled near the riverbank that overlooks the reclusive prosecutor’s estate, the film is also an acutely grim and unflinching view on the baseness of human behavior that is nurtured by the folly and madness of war. Shooting in somber hues that mirror the interiority of the characters, Angelo indelibly captures the ambiguity and desolation that inevitably surface within the periphery of the dispirited rituals and moral vacuum of human crisis.
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