La France (**)
One of last year’s more obscure critical fixations, La France has, as a concept at least, much to recommend it. Serge Bozon’s story of French soldiers in World War I puts a stubborn, enterprising woman, Camille (Sylvie Testud), at its centre. After receiving a letter from her husband indicating, enigmatically, that she should never contact him again, Camille cuts her hair short and runs away from her small town in North Eastern France to look for him. She stumbles upon a cadre of soldiers, who begrudgingly accept her, putting her in soldier’s garb. As the group’s travels become increasingly desperate, they begin, inexplicably, to pull out instruments and sing beautiful songs, which constitute the only music in the film, and are inspired by post-Revolver pop-psychedelia, not, as one might assume, by period appropriate music hall ditties.
All this gutsy creativity should make La France much less of a slog than it is. Bozon has obviously taken a cue from Brecht, but has not successfully applied that playwright’s love of melodrama. Nor, for that matter, has he come close to capturing the spirit of classic war films by Ford, Walsh, or Fuller, despite what recent raves in Cahiers du Cinema and Cinema Scope magazines suggest. This is not to say that La France isn’t without intrigue: one can’t help but want to know what’s going to happen to Camille, and secrets are successively divulged that foster this curiosity. Yet Bozon’s style is predominantly stolid, and La France suffers from editing that privileges the episodic over the fluid and overarching: scene changes can seem as abrupt as the cadre’s flights into song. This is purposeful, but not necessarily effective. And at moments of crisis—rape, death, suffering—it seems plain wrong. Absurdity and detachment don’t universalize and allegorize La France; they make it remote, and occasionally even boring.
La France is now playing at Cinematheque Ontario (Jackman Hall, 317 Dundas St. W.).