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France, La
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by Mel Valentin

"Flawed, but nonetheless compelling filmmaking."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed and co-written by actor-turned-filmmaker, Serge Bozon, "La France" is an oddball World War I/musical-fantasy that's as unique as it is (at times) frustrating. Beautifully shot by Céline Bozon (Serge’s sister), "La France" is a World War I film where a female character can easily masquerade as a teenage boy, where a “lost” regiment can tramp up and down the verdant French countryside without being noticed, and where, when night comes around, the same company of French soldiers, playing home-made instruments, will break into plaintive songs lamenting lost loves and an idyllic French past. In short, "La France" is the kind of film that could be only made in France. Unsurprisingly, Bozon won the Jean Vigo Award honoring the singularity of his vision for "La France."

Autumn, 1917. Camille (Sylvie Testud) receives an ambiguous letter from her soldier-husband, Francois, from the front. Francois informs Camille that their marriage is over and that she should forget about him. Despairing, Camille attempts to leave her village and find Francois. Turned back by the local gendarme, Camille decides to masquerade as a teenage boy. Making good her escape, Camille encounters a company of soldiers led by the grey-bearded Lieutenant Paulhan (Pascal Greggory). Paulhan jealously guards his safety of his men and initially refuses to allow Camille to join their slow, meandering march back to the front lines. Camille persists, of course, even going as jumping off a bridge to convince Paulhan of her intentions. Paulhan relents and in no time, Camille becomes a member of the company, wearing the clothes of a soldier, all the while listening to the men as they recount their experiences on the front lines, share some poetry or verse, and sing 60s-era pop tunes. But like Camille, Paulhan hides a secret of his own.

For his first film as a director, Bozon chose a large, potentially daunting subject, World War I, but rather than focus on men fighting and dying, on the camaraderie of men in battle (all of which we’ve seen countless times before), he focused instead on the men traveling to the front. Inspired by the films of Raoul Walsh and Sam Fuller, Bozon was more interested in, to quote a cliché, the journey, not the destination. In Camille, an observer unfamiliar with war, Bozon found the perfect device with which to explore the moments in between battles or fighting, when relationships develop or unravel, when desires and secrets and more likely to emerge through conversation and dialogue.

La France eschews drama for minute character observations, vivid visuals of the French countryside unspoiled by war, and nighttime scenes where the soldiers seemingly float in the darkness, which in turn creates a sense of unreality or fantasy (a sense confirmed in the denouement). There’s no more arresting a moment than a shot involving the men floating down a river on a raft, illuminated by a still smoldering fire onshore and their under-powered helmets. The sense that we’re in a parallel world is intensified by the pop tunes that periodically punctuate La France, adding a plaintive melancholy to the soldiers and their seemingly endless journey away from their families and communities.

Bozon misses out, however, by not differentiating sufficiently between Paulhan’s men who, with their grey overcoats and helmets are often indistinguishable. To be fair, that might have been an attempt by Bozon to make a larger point about the universality of the soldiers’ experience. Where Bozon really falters, however, is in giving Sylvia Testud so little to do once she joins the company. She often fades into the background and we ultimately learn little about her besides her great love for her missing husband (passionate romantic love is a given in French films) and her desire to join him, expressed in her stubbornness. Worse still, Bozon slips in an ambiguous ending that will leave few moviegoers happy. Are the last scenes wish-fulfillment fantasy? Or is the entire film a fevered dream? Only Bozon seems to know the answer to that question. Pity he chose not to share the answer with his audience.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16721&reviewer=402
originally posted: 05/06/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  05-Sep-2008 (NR)
  DVD: 06-Apr-2010

UK
  N/A

Australia
  05-Sep-2008




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