Bresson meets the Beatles in director Serge Bozon’s remarkable “La France,” a WWI drama that unexpectedly breaks into spirited song at four key moments during its otherwise spare, austere portrayal of combat and camaraderie on the Western front. Audacious in concept but superbly controlled in execution, what might easily have seemed a genre-bending stunt instead registers as a highly sensitive, inspired approach to the subject of men — and one woman — confronting the dehumanizing effects of war. Slated for a November release in Gaul, pic should enjoy robust exposure at fall fests and prove an attractive acquisition for adventurous arthouse distribs.
Set in the fall of 1917, pic begins far from the front lines, as a woman named Camille (Sylvie Testud) receives a disconcerting letter from her soldier husband Francois stating, in effect, that she will never see or hear from him again. With quiet resolve, she disguises herself as a man — or, more accurately, a slightly androgynous teenage boy — and sets off to rejoin her spouse at the front.
Making her way through a forest, Camille crosses paths with a small group of soldiers led by a gruff but kindly lieutenant (Pascal Greggory), whom she implores to let her join their ranks. He refuses and, when she persists in following them anyway, fires a warning shot that hits Camille in the hand.
After her wounds are tended to, Camille is effectively welcomed into the company, which, the lieutenant claims, has become separated from its regiment following an engagement with enemy combatants. Only well into pic’s running time does the viewer (and Camille) discover the real reason why the men have drifted off course. In the meantime, in scenes that occasionally recall the jungle retreat of the ambushed paratroopers in Raoul Walsh’s “Objective, Burma!,” the soldiers proceed toward the French-Dutch border, pausing occasionally to rest … and to sing!
The sight of conscripts singing in a war movie is not uncommon, of course, but the soldiers of “La France” belt out their original tunes in pitch-perfect four-part harmonies, while playing an array of ramshackle period acoustic instruments. First of these numbers, coming about 30 minutes in, is hugely surprising and even somewhat jarring, but the combination of plaintive lyrics (told, like all of pic’s tunes, from the perspective of a lovelorn blind woman) and up-tempo, sing-along melodies (which bear comparison not just to the Fab Four, but to the Beach Boys and Britpop group Belle and Sebastian) quickly wins one over.
Though they do not directly address or further the plot in any way, the songs create the sense that the film is taking place in a suspended reality, as if the eerily depopulated woods through which the characters march were not just a literal thicket but a figurative one. That feeling is reinforced by the many straight dialogue scenes in which Bozon and screenwriter Axelle Ropert (Bozon’s wife) reveal the soldiers to be literate, contemplative men who have begun to question the supposed nobility of the battlefield.
The war itself remains mostly an abstraction, represented by the sounds of distant gunfire and offscreen explosions, though Bozon shows a strong aptitude for efficient action direction during a few key set pieces. A tense standoff late in the pic, between the soldiers and an unwelcome intruder in the barn where they have taken shelter, makes for a truly startling sequence.
In a film where nothing is overemphasized, the chameleonic Testud disappears completely into her role with the aid of very little makeup or elaborate costuming, while Greggory conveys a powerful sense of a profoundly decent man torn between his sense of duty and his larger sense of humanity.
Period production design is spare but excellent. Lensing, courtesy of helmer’s sister Celine Bozon, turns the natural landscape into an exquisite palette of earth tones and natural light.