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Four Soldiers (Les 4 Soldats), The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/03/13 20:06:59

"They make an effective unit."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I gather writer/director Robert Morin is kind of a big deal in French-Canadian film, which doesn't surprise me from watching "Les 4 Soldats"; it's a very confident, assured independent film, impressive for how it can take relatively minimal activity and still make something very dramatic. Even though Quebeçois film has started to travel a bit more lately with the likes of "Monsieur Lazhar" and "Starbuck", this low-key genre film will probably stay somewhat obscure despite telling its story quite well.

The film opens with narration that describes the status quo as a sort of economic civil war, although the situation mostly seems like armed chaos. A group of rebels take in orphaned teen Dominique (Camille Mongeau), with hard-edged Matéo (Christian de la Cortina) especially serving as her protector. In another abandoned house, they make a new friend in Big Max (Antoine Bertrand), a burly but gentle sort prone to talking to himself. When the larger group settles in to make camp, they include reserved, dreadlocked Kevin (Aliocha Schenider) in their shelter. As the unusually long period in one place continues, these four become very tight-knit, so when the leadership assigns new recruit Gabriel (Antoine L'Écuyer) to bunk with them, they're not sure whether or not they want to share the beautiful pond they've found with him.

Working from a novel by Hubert Mingarelli, Morin spends a few sentences establishing the reasons behind this civil war at the beginning but he doesn't have much interest in actually fighting it; the action is reserved for a few scenes at the start and end of the movie and the cause is rather beside the point. He mainly uses it to isolate his characters, shearing them away from what prior attachments they might have, shrinking their world physically, emotionally, and in terms of direction. The idea is to show them forming a family rather than just a unit, and Morin finds a few interesting ways to do so: The cheery-looking storage shed Big Max finds for a shelter while other groups are building lean-tos out of scrap metal, or the bickering over who gets to watch the iPod. Eventually, their ties to each other supersede those to the group, and the ethics of that is probably a question that the filmmakers could play with a bit more.

Beyond the themes, the telling of the story is quite good as well. Morin does a number of interesting things with his narrator, such as how occasionally Dominique will break the fourth wall and start talking mid-scene for only the audience to hear, though other moments will be standard voice-over. There's something more intimate about the former, naturally - those are her feelings as opposed to just information being delivered. I also wondered if the other characters were meant to think she was a boy - the pronouns occasionally worked that way, and she never does undress at the pond the way her friends do. It's a thing that doesn't hurt the movie at all if one misses it, but does play into familiar elements of this sort of storyline in other ways; I wonder if there are other hidden subplots.

Whether that's an intentional part of what she's doing or not, Camille Mongeau gives an impressive performance as Dominique, doing a lot of little things that build the character even when she's not addressing the audience directly. It's easy to extrapolate a crush on Matéo or see how he's potentially kept her somewhat shielded from the worst the world has to offer. The rest of the actors playing the core group are just as good, even though some don't have particularly showy parts. Anotine Bertrand, for instance, does a fine job of capturing how the big, solid-looking guy is the most fragile, while Christian de la Cortina is able to let out just enough humanity to make his "protector" more than just a stock character.

For a small, independently produced bit of science fiction, it looks pretty good; Morin and company can't do the sort of effects work that shouts "the future!", but they don't have to pull in tight to keep the part of a neighborhood that isn't dressed up as a war zone out of the shot. A good chunk of the middle of the film takes place in fields and rural scrap-heaps, but the resources they save there are put to good use when it is time to show some battle - the end isn't blockbuster-slick, or even always smooth, but it's much better than good enough.

The movie ends on another bit of ambiguity, which is entirely fitting given how it has brushed everything but what it considered important aside up to that point. The post-apocalyptic action movie it might appear to be would have a different conclusion, but even if it's not flashy, Morin makes another right, understated choice there.

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