Reviews and notes
2007 Cannes (Director's Fortnight), Vancouver
2008 Rotterdam, Auckland
Winner of France's Jean Vigo Award for the year's most remarkable debut, the elegantly assured LA FRANCE
mixes genres - period romance, war movie and pop album - to confoundingly pleasurable effect. As WWI rages, Camille (Sylvie Testud) receives a letter from her husband at the front, telling her that she will never see him again. Determined to prove him wrong, she sets off, disguised as a boy, to find him. She falls in with a lost regiment she meets in a forest, and their strange, detached war-weary world becomes the landscape of her romantic quest. In the film's most amazing invention, the action pauses while the men gather to sing their hearts out - to tunes that might have been written 45 years later.
- Bill Gosden, Auckland Film Festival 2008.
In the once-upon-a-time fairy tale called LA FRANCE
, a World War I movie like none other, French soldiers move through darkly verdant landscapes worthy of Henri Rousseau. There are no lions or dreaming guitarists in this nocturnal green world, only shadows, phantoms, twinkling stars and discordant harmonies created by the whirring animals and exploding bombs. There are, however, several stringed instruments, and every so often, when this already strange land seems ready to settle into eerie silence, these soldiers break out their instruments and into jangling, plaintive song.
Not any old war ballad — mournful refrains about devastated lives, say, or road-tattered boots — but melodic riffs on the 1960s pop song Gospel Lane
by the British duo Robbie Curtice and Tom Payne. (That tune, which plays over the end credits, will be familiar to fans of Belle and Sebastian
.) There is something obviously discordant about this infusion of pop into the generally hallowed realm of the war movie, which greatly adds to the pleasure and mystery of La France
. Much like its expressive cinematography, which ushers you deep into the night, the film’s impudent genre sampling — it begins as a woman’s picture before morphing into a romantic war musical — is an invitation to boldness.
The movie, which was written by Axelle Ropert and directed by Serge Bozon (who also wrote the lyrics for the original songs), opens with a long shot of small figures running somewhat chaotically down a hill toward the camera. You soon discover that the figures are women who have been unsuccessfully trying to catch sight of the front. Soon enough, one woman, Camille (Sylvie Testud), receives a distressing letter from her husband — he warns that she’ll never see him again — and she decides to search him out. Persuasively disguised as a boy, she leaves her cloistered world and heads into the gloam, where she meets a band of soldiers under the command of a cool, seemingly aloof lieutenant (Pascal Greggory).
Although the soldiers initially regard Camille with skepticism and worse (some fear she’s a spy, which she is, in a fashion), one gives her a castoff uniform, securing her disguise further. In time, she melts into the group, fading into their ranks, much as the men seem to melt into their surroundings. Mr. Bozon, working with his talented cinematographer (and sister), Céline Bozon, accentuates this sense of immersion by often filming the characters at a distance, a vantage point that at times turns the gray-blue uniforms into so many daubs of color on a dappled landscape. As the men thrash and push through one forested glen and thicket after another, their uniforms start to seem less like a soldier’s usual camouflage and more like skins.
Mr. Bozon never explains his film’s evocative title — though, like all countries, France is as much a state of mind as a geographical place — nor why he includes these lovely, incongruent yet perfect songs. Most are sung from a female point of view (“I, the blind girl ...”), which may be a reference to Camille and her mission. Yet while the tunes jolt you out of the war movie that Mr. Bozon skillfully leads you into, they are finally no stranger than those sung by Fred Astaire when spoken words prove inadequate. In this dark fairy tale, filled with feeling and cinematic allusions — the soldiers float down a river like the runaway children in The Night of the Hunter
— it is the indelible image of lonely and lost men that speaks the loudest.
- Manhola Dargis, The New York Times, 11 July 2008.
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