Masculinity, or a particular fantasy of it, is a damned and short-lived inheritance in The Great Man. Warrior-like invincibility is at once a duty, a curse, and an illusion achieved with the help of a group of men, and passed on to the next generation quickly before it disappears. The men in question are French Foreign Legion soldiers Hamilton (Jérémie Renier) and Markov (Surho Sugaipov), who are part of a brotherhood bonded as though they formed one single body. We’re told by a child’s voiceover narration that if one legionnaire drinks water, it kills his fellow soldier’s thirst, and the death of one means the demise of all.
An ambush in Afghanistan puts such relationships to the test, as Hamilton’s wounds and Markov’s foreignness (he’s Chechen) throw them out of the battlefield and into the real world. Hamilton’s experiencing of the fragility of the human body makes him want to escape war altogether instead of sticking around as a subpar, and actually human, fighter. Markov finds out that after several years of service he’d have to re-enlist in order to get French identity papers, and chooses to bow out instead. Back in France, Markov begins the depressing process of adapting to civilian life by meeting his young son, Khadji (Ramzan Idiev), who doesn’t speak his own language and who doesn’t remember him. Or, if he does, is too resentful by his father’s prolonged absence to admit it. While Markov eventually wins the boy over by teaching him the French legionnaire’s code of honor, father-and-son bonding is abruptly brought to an end. Reduced to the condition of Unaccompanied Foreign Minor in search for a foster home, Khadji finds in Hamilton a reluctant substitute father.
The Great Man depicts in exquisitely cinematic fashion the symbiotic relationship between brothers and the role of the group as guarantor for a legitimate masculinity as Freud famously theorized it in Totem and Taboo. It exploits the military aesthetics that lend themselves so well to breath-taking sounds and visuals without fetishizing them as in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. Director Sarah Leonor offers such graphic harmony and great phallic trompe l’oeils: the mesmerizing image of a soldier carrying a wounded brother across a landscape, an aerial shot of uniformed men lined up in fascist accuracy, the sound of a crisp tie being undone and of dog tags clinking against an impossibly manly bare chest.
The homoerotics and pretty precisions may haunt the frame, but they never take over the narrative. Leonor is mostly intent on telling a narrative tale, sometimes too narrative, about perverse promises of a father who’s never anywhere to be found—whether in his literal iteration, or as the state, for whom an injured soldier is as useful as a dead one. The film also suggests a mirroring relationship between body and memory, both frail and ultimately irreparable. It takes so many men to win, or simply stage, a battle, and to prop masculinity up, but so very little for everything to collapse beyond repair.