(French and German dialogue)
Painter Charles Matton’s “The Light From Dead Stars” is artistic in the best sense of the word, melding memory and imagery with bark and bite. Gorgeous, deeply affecting autobiographical account of the 9-year-old helmer’s cohabitation with German soldiers when the family home was requisitioned during World War II is the first truly outstanding French pic of 1994.
Film belongs in offshore arthouses but could prove a hard sell to overcome perceptions that it is yet another WWII occupation tale. Matton, a former Esquire illustrator whose two previous pix (“L’Italien des roses” and “L’Amour est un fleuve en Russie”) date from the early 1970s, has come up with the kind of movie Proust might have made if he had a Louma crane instead of a fountain pen. Helmer had a hand in everything from casting to color timing, and his search for perfection is consistently rewarded.
Pic begins its trajectory into memory with a fluid pan above a dressed set on a soundstage. Camera lands in the painter’s studio, where Matton’s voice describes the scene to come as his finger points to a canvas of a lawn, which then transforms into a three-dimensional location, circa June 1940.
Camera swoops around the exterior of a lovely chateau, which it then enters and examines like a hovering spirit. Director as a 9-year-old boy is winningly played by Matton’s son Leonard, 10, a pale redhead who renders his father’s childhood delights and fears with casual ease.
Young Charles lives with his religion-obsessed older sister, his slightly clairvoyant mother (Catherine Sihol) and two female servants. His father, Pierre (Jean-Francois Balmer), stumbles in, having walked almost 200 miles from Paris. The German occupation of France has just begun.
Balmer (the hapless hubby in Chabrol’s “Madame Bovary”) is excellent as the Verdun veteran with no further stomach for war who politely welcomes the delegation of German soldiers demanding to be lodged in the family’s expansive manse. Until they are called to the Russian front two years later, the Germans share daily life with the Mattons.
Charles becomes close to Karl (Thomas Huber), a French-speaking soldier who believes that killing, though sometimes necessary, is never just. Latter’s gifts to the boy include a scale model of a zeppelin and a notebook (from which film gets its title) on the wonders of the cosmos.
Charles’ tutor, a Jewish woman who did delicate hand-shadow shows in Germany before the war, teaches her young charge about the magical uses of light and shadow.
Household conflicts are few in the idyllic setting. The housekeeper starts a romance with one of the Germans, but the gap between peaceful coexistence and cruel reality doesn’t register until the family’s Jewish neighbors are dragged from their stately home and the building is torched.
French thesp Richard Bohringer limns the local casino director, who seems to be a suave capitalist but personally transports Jews into unoccupied France at considerable risk. All other actors, both French and German, are superb.
Jean-Jacques Flory’s elegant, expressive lensing honors artifice in the service of memory. Closing sequence, an audacious visual feat, sums up Matton’s influences and artistic convictions.