Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri May 02, 2008 12:58 pm 
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Lost souls skirting the field of battle, singing songs

This peculiar musical war movie about a woman disguised as a man in search of her soldier husband in World War I France has the courage of its oddball convictions--or does it? It was disconcerting, at least, to hear from director Bozon that his original intention was a film about Arabs in the French-Algerian war of the Sixties. For a French art film you need public money, he said, and to get that the dialogue has to be in French--so voila!--no Arabs, and the dial was turned back to WWI.

La France is the kind of thing that truly delights some of the most ardent festival attendees: a film that's genuinely weird and original, that comes from left field, is quite sure of itself, and is sustained by some of the best actors in its country of origin, good cinematography, and unusual music used in an unexpected way. To others, this is likely to seem merely remote and inexplicable; a long slog even at only 102 minutes. To me, it evoked memories of Bresson, or the Rohmer of Percival, while still seeming a cluster of missed opportunities. Opening in France last November, it received a respectful critical reception and the occasional rave. It also ran in Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films series early this year and was singled out for special praise by the Village Voice's Nathan Lee.

Bozon and his scenarist, Axelle Ropert, deserve credit for following their own path in constructing what French reviewer Christine Haas called "a melancholy ballad and a humanistic fable."

Here's the premise: a young woman gets a strange letter from her loving husband at the front: "Stop writing me, you will never see me again." She cuts her hair, binds her breasts and, posing as a seventeen-year-old boy, joins a unit whose members she finds sleeping in a field. Of course they try to get rid of him/her, but "Camille" (Sylvie Testud)--she can use her real name, because it's a boy's as easily as a girl's--each time does something so risky and dramatic (gets shot in the hand, jumps off a bridge) that they have to rescue her and keep her in tow a while longer. Eventually her initiative saves them, and she's accepted, even though the Lieutenant (Pascal Greggory) has declared on her first appearance that he/she has the face of somebody who's "seeking death." The surprise is that the essential unmasking will be not of Camille but of the unit she joins. Guillaume Depardieu comes in for an appropriate cameo at the end looking suitably hopeless, pretty, and shattered.

Good use is made here of Testud's androgyny and Greggory's habitual hangdog look. This scrawny, determined "Camille" really resembles a boy, while the Lieutenant's soft, sad visage hints at something very wrong.

Every so often--and this is what the film will be remembered for--the soldiers take out a bunch of handmade junkyard musical instruments and in unprofessional but harmonized falsettos sing a Sixties-style ballad, which is always from a woman's viewpoint--and has, by intention, absolutely nothing to do with the action. Bozon claims that it's a Hollywood tradition and not purely his avantgardism to make war movies with songs that are anachronistic and not plot-related.

The resulting effect, anyhow, lacks any sense of the actual, without slipping over into a purely conceptual or fantastic framework that might have given the themes of loss, loneliness, failure of nerve, and sexual identity (or whatever all this is about) really free rein. Camille is an interesting character with rich picaresque possibilities that are insufficiently explored. Testud seems to give so much, yet get back so little from the film. Greggory's sick-soul character never develops or changes. The other soldiers never take on real personalities. The essential mechanism of most war movies--the sounds and effects of battle--is absent. Instead, violence comes from an unexpected quarter. The resolution is bitter-sweet.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008. It won the Prix Jean Vigo in France for independent spirit and originality of style.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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