Monday, January 19, 2009

LA FRANCE: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Guillaume Verdier
Director: Serge Bozon
Country: France
Language: French
Runtime: 102 min.
Rating: ***
Genre: War, Drama, Musical

        I had had La France on my to-be-watched radar for a long time, with no luck on the torrent front. Maybe nobody was interested, and that is strange because Cahiers Du Cinema had this film as one of their Top 10 of 2007. That it was a matter of stuff falling into place and maybe intervention, that I happened to open my PIFF 2008 account with it, a very strange and a very interesting film. Now that I have seen it, I’m not really sure I am really qualified enough to review this film. It is based on World War I. But as is to be expected from the French, and someone who has been a film critic, Mr. Serge Bozon employs elements that find their relevance and concern more in the history of filmmaking and cinema than actual historical events. That finds me fishing blind, as I have not seen even a single film that Mr. Bozon is referring to. I only learn of them from this immensely insightful interview here, which frankly is the only discourse of any note I could find on the film. And both Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis have reviewed it.
        Of course, I have seen some war films of the era Mr. Bozon is referring to, and I get the general idea. But I still find myself inept at analyzing the intricacies of the film, except for its themes. And its techniques. The Cinema Scope piece I have cited above ought to give you most comprehensive study on the movie, and I’ll lend some of my own observations of the film, which surely ought to stand amateurish.
        Most places I read cite La France as a strange war film. I wonder, is it really a war film? As in, being about the war? Or does it use war as a pretext to explore larger deeper philosophies? For all we feel is the presence of war, as something lurking perilously nearby. But then, it might still be a war film, and a great war film at that, for it wouldn’t just be a war film.
        Consider the plot, which in hindsight actually feels like an afterthought. It feels as if the themes and philosophies needed to be glued together and the plot was summoned to provide the services. Camille (Ms. Testud) is an anorexic woman whose husband has been on the Western front for quite a long time now. He would write letters to her as often as possible, but now those letters which Camille so eagerly awaits have dried up. Until a letter comes along in which her husband, Francois his name, asks of her to forget him altogether as he wouldn’t be returning ever again. You might assume such a feeble creature, who is only seventeen, might be devastated. But she seems to have great courage and great resolve and she packs her bags and decides to head for the front in the middle of the night. The soldiers patrolling the city stop her, and command her to go back. Neither the front nor the night seems to be a place for a woman. She cuts her hair, dresses herself in her husband’s clothes and embarks on the journey, where she meets a group of soldiers headed by a lieutenant (Mr. Greggory), and joins their ranks to find her husband. The lieutenant mistakes her for a him, asks her to go back to where she came from citing the front as hardly a place for such young a creature, and eventually succumbs to her insistence and includes her in his ranks as a cadet. And as they travel through night and day and through forest and snow we learn they are deserters.
        Where is the battleground here? The more obvious one is beyond the trees and mountains and beyond the rivers. And there’s a deeper metaphorical one that is being waged, where a world traditionally considered the domain of males has been punctured by the encroachment of a female. Of course, she doesn’t reveal and they do not realize. But she is what she is, and one ought to wonder whether it is in her power to control the influence the soul she brings to the battlefield possesses.
        I might not be making much sense here, and so I’ll declare something I believe to be the key to understanding the film. First things first. La France is seeking to understand the emotions – longing, nostalgia, dreams, love, fear – emotions that lend us the soul, and is wondering if they are feminine in their very nature. The film isn’t making a condescending remark, or theorizing that emotions are weak and hence feminine. Rather it believes in the opposite, assuming all emotions derived from the feminine, and remembering them, celebrating them, and stops short of worshipping them. In a way this feminine part is what makes us human, what renders us grounded and real. Camille’s presence in a way catalyzes these emotions in the soldiers, who never seem to be carrying any musical instruments on them, but often break into songs drenched in melancholy. It is interesting to observe that these songs are sung from a female’s perspective, specifically that of the most vulnerable one – a blind girl – and are yearning for their long lost love to come and rescue them. More interestingly the country, the ocean, the river, and everything around in the war torn land are given feminine names too. Mr. Bozon might be making an argument for the feminine nature of a genre that has traditionally been the male’s prerogative, but I will not vouch for it.
        I intend to invoke There Will Be Blood here, for that is a world where the feminine has almost been wiped out of existence. Look how the men there act, and react. These emotions I cite above might hold the key to out truest self too, and often we choose to hide them and be dishonest with them. Does it mean we’re deserters, and as I wonder about the question I am strangely reminded of Travis Bickle, someone I have long perceived as one.
        I had earlier mentioned the story as an afterthought. It very much is, like a clothesline, and it would have nearly been a play had it not been for the hugely expressionist cinematography. Especially in the night-time scenes, where there is extensive use of high-key fill lighting, which Mr. Bozon and his sister Ms. Celine Bozon describe as the ‘aquarium effect’. It is interesting to note that the characters in the film dream of an Atlantis buried underneath the ocean. There’s a sequence where the soldiers are converging in towards Camille, and the moon is shining from up above, and the film’s visual style renders a fantastical feel in the way she ‘disappears’ from their midst. Almost the entire film is gray and murky, but for the ending which is bright. It is snow all around, and it renders a beauty to an ending that is utterly predictable. But then, how else?
        I feel my views on the film aren’t exactly crystal clear, and to some extent are even confusing. I’m too. As a review consider this half-baked. Consider this as a starting point, a launching pad for this film, and indulge yourself in seeking and understanding this very fine film. Is it a film I admire more than I love? Of course. I could hardly connect with the film, at an emotional level I mean, and I intend to view the film again too, at the first chance, and revisit my review on a later date. This film has had me thinking for some time now, ever since I saw it and I’m not sure I’m anywhere near to being sure about it. But there sure is a great deal to it than that meets the eye.

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