A rarefied parable about war, Serge Bozon’s La France resists interpretation with a mix of obliqueness and finely calibrated loveliness. Simultaneously avant garde and down to earth, the somber film is anchored by spontaneous musical eruptions on its more elusive end and by Sylvie Testud’s tactile performance as a woman searching for her soldier husband during World War I. This combination means La France won’t find a substantial audience stateside, despite its timeliness. The fact it’s being released at all is quite remarkable.
In the autumn of 1917, Camille (Testud) disguises herself as a man and sets out from her village for the front lines. Her husband Francois has sent a curt letter telling her to stop writing to him and declaring they will never see each other again. He offers no explanation, but this omission turns out to be only one of many cryptic story elements. Almost immediately—though it’s hard to say, since it’s never clear how much time has passed—Camille meets a ragtag group of a dozen or so French soldiers led by a stern lieutenant (Pascale Greggory). Something is definitely off. The men are skittish and squirrelly, perhaps shell-shocked. Posing as a 17-year-old boy eager for battle, Camille insists on accompanying them to the front. As they trek across the lush countryside, the soldiers discuss food and take turns reading aloud from a book about Atlantis. Every so often, they break into song, rendering melodic folk tunes with serene voices and accompanying themselves on crude instruments that materialize out of nowhere. Each song references a different European country (England, Italy, Poland), but their import is elusive, as is the film’s commentary on the French nation and character.
The odyssey continues in linear if episodic fashion with Camille able to preserve her secret identity. Events befall the group—mushroom poisoning, for instance—and yet the violent horror of war remains ominously off-screen as they make their way toward an uncertain destination. The soldiers’ secret, if not the exact nature of their fate is finally revealed. Their experience is central to the plot, but they also function as a chorus—a troupe of almost catatonic minstrels accompanying an exemplar of feminine fortitude whose journey reaches a more definite conclusion. The petit Testud limns the persevering heroine with her usual intensity, while Greggory, whose looks seem tailor made for the period, ably tackles a role that calls for strength and dignity tinged with hopelessness.
La France takes place somewhere between the muddy, bloody trenches and the stars twinkling with allegorical significance high above the Continent. Its strain of magical-musical realism seems extraordinary at first. In the end, however, it echoes many past war dramas, adding Bozon’s talented voice to the register of filmmakers seeking to capture the fundamental hollowness of war. Survival is the only possible satisfaction.
Distributor: Pyramide International
Cast: Sylvie Testud, Pascale Greggory, Guillaume Verdier, Bob Boisadan, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Didier Brice, Philippe Chemin, Guilaume Depardieu, Benjamin Esdraffo and Cecile Reigher
Director: Serge Bozon
Screenwriter: Axelle Ropert
Producer: David Thion
Genre: War/Drama/Musical; French-language, with English subtitles
Running time: 102 min.
Release date: July 11