During a somewhat uneven career, Andre Techine has touched on the theme of initiation in one form or another many times, but has come up with one of his more accomplished efforts in the awkwardly titled “Strayed.” Based on a 1983 novel, “The Boy With Grey Eyes” (a much better title), the film explores the chaotic summer of 1940 when Germany invaded France. The film focuses not on big events but on small ones. Thanks to a taut, suspenseful, linear approach, and a trio of excellent performances — plus an erotically charged love scene — pic displays every possibility for commercial and critical success, both in France and internationally.
“Strayed” recalls great films that similarly dealt with the German Occupation, concentrating on the effect on the young and innocent: Rene Clement’s “Forbidden Games” (1952) and Louis Malle’s “Lacombe Lucien” (1974), for example.
Shocking newsreel footage depicts the agony Germany brought to her neighbor in 1940. Recently widowed Odile (Emmanuelle Beart) flees Paris with her children, 13-year-old Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and 7-year-old Cathy (Clemence Meyer), joining the long line of refugees heading south by whatever means of transport possible. When German planes bomb the choked road filled with civilians, Odile’s car is destroyed, and she flees into the woods with her children.
They encounter a youth named Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), who appears out of nowhere to help them. Yvan, 17 years old and illiterate, claims not to care about people but is clearly in need of love. Resourceful and fiercely independent, he charms Philippe and Cathy, though Odile is suspicious, fearing that his recklessness will get him, and them, into trouble.
But, Philippe is afraid that Yvan will leave them and bribes him to stay, using his late father’s watch as an inducement. After a night in the open, the four fugitives stumble upon a large house. Yvan unhesitatingly breaks in; this begins an almost idyllic time for the foursome, away from the war.
As time goes by, Odile’s suspicions about the young stranger begin to fade away, and the two are drawn closer when she offers to teach him how to read and write. The sexual tension becomes palpable.
Techine creates a considerable degree of suspense with minimal ingredients here, and he has been judicious in his casting choices. Beart is perfect as the middle-class wife and mother who is barely coping with the loss of her husband (an early victim of the war) and her fears for the immediate future.
Ulliel (who was seen in “Brotherhood of the Wolf”) gives an outstanding performance as Yvan, but equally good is Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet as Philippe, who hero-worships the boy only four years older than himself.
Agnes Godard makes a major contribution with her smartly composed images, almost all shot on location, and, though Philippe Sarde’s score teeters on the edge of mawkish at times, it generally enhances the mood. All other credits are highly professional.