Harrison's Flowers (France 2000) ***
Directed & produced by Elie Chouraqui. Written by Chouraqui, Didier Le Pecheur, Isabel Ellsen (plus Michael Katims). Based on Ellsen's book "Le Diable a l'avantage." Photography, Nicola Pecorini & Elie Chouraqui. Editing, Jacques Witta. Production design, Giantito Burchiellaro. Produced by Chouraqui & Albert Cohen. Cast: Andie MacDowell (Sarah Lloyd), David Strathairn (Harrison Lloyd), Elias Koteas (Yeager), Adrien Brody (Kyle), Brendan Gleeson (Stevenson), Alin Armstrong (Samuel Brubeck), Scott Anton (Cesar Lloyd), Quinn Shephard (Margaux Lloyd), Diane Baker (the kids' grandma), et al. A Universal Focus release. 130 minutes. R (extreme violence)
In the 20th century, among the many messy lands, the messiest has been Yugoslavia. During World War II and the Nazi occupation, a mixed salad of ethnicities fought not only the Germans (e.g. Tito's partisans, the Ustachis, the Croatian Chetniks who also persecuted the Jews, etc.) but each other too. In post-war Yugoslavia, "drug" (comrade) Tito held the factions together and in some ways --including tourism and a wonderful production of movies-- the country flourished. After his death all hell broke loose. It culminated in the Serbs fighting the Slovenians and especially the Croats; the secession of Slovenia and Croatia; the nightmare of Bosnia; and on and on. Now Yugoslavia is a thing of the past, the old name is gone and replaced by separate entities of which the largest is to be called "Serbia and Montenegro".
The average person in the U.S.A. has not the faintest idea of what the Yugo-troubles really are. Even historians get confused. "Harrison's Flowers" is no help for getting things straight, not to mention understand them, but that's not the ultimate purpose of the movie. The aim, simply and powerfully, is the unspeakable disasters of wars of any sort, especially civil wars.
The film is a French production financed by the powerful "Canal Plus," directed and co-written by Elie Chouraqui (born in Paris, 1950), whose ninth (and best) feature this is , as well as his first in English. It was a hit in Europe, so why it took its time getting to the U.S. is unclear.
Andie MacDowell, the toothy poster gal for Loreal, finally has a serious role. She plays, Sarah, the wife of Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn), the mother of their two children, and a picture editor at Newsweek magazine. Harrison is an ace, Pulitzer winning war-photographer for Newsweek. He's had it, want to quit. But as we know from many movies, there's always a last job. (Normally this occurs with cops about to retire). And that job is to shoot the Serbia-Croatia conflict-- especially around the city of Vucovar-- the brutality of which is hardly suspected by the magazine's direction.
You can tell this is not a Hollywood production since the "action" part that's the movie's substance does not begin until about the 40th minute. Not a waste of time however. It covers the Lloyds; a very well-staged and acted banquet in which Harrison introduces a new Pulitzer laureate; it also introduces us to Kyle (Adrien Brody), another war-photographer, a freelance who resents the well-heeled colleagues who are richly subsidized by magazines. Performances are excellent. The visuals are terrific --and terrifying.
Harrison takes off for Yugoslavia. Soon after he is reported missing. But what with his body not found and Sarah's various presentments, she takes off for Yugoslavia to search for her man.
From the moment she --and a hitchhiker who wants to take his family to Paris --enter Yugoslavia by car, until almost the movie's end, we are watching action with a vengeance. The rented automobile is pulverized by fire (from guns, tanks, mines, you name it). The explosions seldom stop (later, even planes come into the picture). Sarah is wounded and near-raped,. It's a series of savage, inhuman sights. The violence never abates, and if it does for a moment, mega-danger is in the air. It is chaos. A reporter states: "They're all bad guys. There are no good guys."
The reporter is Kyle, whom we meet again, and who, with one or two colleagues, is joined by Sarah. There are no wartime cliches in the film, but there is a clear tribute to journalists, photographers and cinematographers, those little-sung war heroes.
This is a no-holds-barred picture. As Sarah and friends circulate in this hell strewn with debris of buildings, armaments, corpses (even the violated body of a little girl) there is no dialogue, no rhetoric, no "movie-speak." The soberness of language is replaced by the atrociousness of sights and action. "It wasn't fighting. It was extermination, what they called later "ethnic cleansing." And a time when 48 journalists died covering it.
"Harrison's flowers" (a title that the movie does explain) is, in its way, an elliptical work that works very well. Mostly because it visuals are stunning. What's amazing is that the Yugoslav exteriors (and the fewer interiors) were shot in the Czech Republic -- many of them by director Chouraqui himself.
I will not reveal how the film handles its "happy" ending within a Dantean context. I will not either discuss the obvious, that is, the post 9-11 deaths among foreign correspondents in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Or the tragic coincidence of Daniel Pearl being an American Jew as is the film's Harrison, although in the latter case this is said in passing and has no bearing on the story.
But in case some spectators draw the wrong conclusions, I want to stress that neither Croats nor Serbs (and I have known well, liked and respected many) are by and large human beasts.
The homage to journalists and photo-reporters is clear - and fitting. Those profesionals have existed ever since photography was born. One of the earliest cases I have seen was in World War I film footage of the battles of Caporetto, where the Italians fought the Austrians. To avoid bullets, the soldiers would lie down on the ground, but the newsreel photographers had to stand straight up with their tripod-mounted wooden cameras and hand-crank. This is courage beyond the call of duty.