Marching into the Great Unknown

Do you like knowing what to expect when you go to a movie? Some moviegoers like everything laid out neatly and wrapped up at the end with no ambiguity. But when the director’s intentions and directorial choices are never made obvious or explicit, it can result in a baffling but memorable viewing experience. Welcome to Serge Bozon’s La France (2007), which had been widely praised at various film festivals (it was nominated for two awards at the Cannes Film Festival), but never made much of an impact on U.S. film critics and moviegoers.     

Here’s the basic premise which doesn’t begin to indicate the movie’s oddly entrancing effect:  Camille (Sylvie Testud), the wife of a soldier serving France in World War I, receives a letter from her husband telling her to forget him with the cryptic line, “You’ll never see me again.” Stunned by his response, she is compelled to leave her rural village to find him and possibly save him. First, she is turned back by soldiers because women aren’t allowed to travel into war zones. Then she cuts her hair, masquerades as a young man and is reluctantly adopted by a platoon of soldiers until they can deposit him/her at a safe location along their way to the front.

The lieutenant (Pascal Greggory) and Camille (Sylvie Testud) are the major players in the absurdist war musical, La France (2007).

Even though none of the soldiers or their commanding officer (Pascal Greggory) show any signs of suspecting Camille of being a woman – even when she insists they call her Camille –  the ruse is more than obvious to the viewer and it’s one of the first signs that we are entering a fantasy realm where behavior dictated by the “disguises” people choose for themselves is accepted as truth. This theatrical device has been used by everyone from Shakespeare to Blake Edwards (Victor/Victoria) but it’s of little consequence here. Everything that follows after Camille joins the group becomes curiouser and curiouser as if we have tumbled down one of Lewis Carroll’s rabbit holes.

A lost platoon of French soldiers wandering in the wilderness is the subject of Serge Bozon’s offbeat 2007 feature, La France.

Perhaps the oddest thing of all is how Camille’s search for her husband becomes secondary to the initial storyline as the movie shifts the focus to the other men in her platoon who are not the typical soldier stereotypes we are used to seeing in war movies. These are not the tough-as-leather, tobacco-spitting macho men of William Wellman’s Battleground or the shell-shocked and brutalized young recruits of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Nor are they the nihilistic nitwits of Richard Lester’s How I Won the War.  Instead, they are depicted as rustic villagers who left families or a trade behind and would rather be anywhere than marching into battle. The topic of war or what might be happening on the front lines rarely enters their conversations and their fireside chats are more likely to be about how to make the best cherry clafoutis or to ruminate about the lost kingdom of Atlantis. A more cerebral, philosophical bunch of soldiers you will not find in any American war movie.

A nocturnal sing-a-long by French soldiers in La France (2007) seems more inspired by The Beatles than World War I songs.

Nor will you find many war films, particularly those set during World War I, where the soldiers break out into song occasionally, expressing some emotional state of mind via tunes that sound like pop music from the sixties complete with melodic Beatles-like harmonies and folk music stylings. The songs usually begin with the lyric, “I, the blind girl…..” even though the singer and the melody changes from soldier to soldier and never really pretends to suggest that it is Camille’s point of view that is being expressed. If anyone in this movie is blind, it’s not Camille.

French actor Pascal Greggory (center) plays an enigmatic lieutenant in the absurdist World War musical drama La France, directed by Serge Bozon.

Certainly the theatrical device of having characters break out unexpectedly in song has been done before in such films as Peter Medak’s black comedy The Ruling Class or Dennis Potter’s brilliant fantasy-fiction The Singing Detective (both the 1986 TV mini-series and the 2003 theatrical film release). In those films, however, the lyrics of the songs served as extensions of the character’s personality or emotional state whether sung, as in the former, or lip-synched, as in the latter. In La France, this unexpected deviation from what started out as a World War I adventure/love story simply accents the movie’s strange, dream-like quality.

Michael Gambon plays a mystery writer with a disfiguring disease who sometimes escapes reality with fantasizing about alternate realities in a musical universe in The Singing Detective, a 1986 British TV series.

In an interview with Serge Bozon by Adam Nayman (of Eye Weekly), the director described these musical interludes as “popsike,” which, in his words, “means psychedelic pop. It’s a very English genre, almost strictly from 1967. For me, it’s the quintessence of British pop. The songs in La France are an attempt to synthesize British popsike – nervous, acidic, driven, tongue-in-cheek and incorporating elements of Victoriana and nursery rhyme – and California sunshine pop: slow, ethereal, hallucinogenic and featuring multi-layered harmonies. However, it’s a twisted synthesis because the instruments and the recording conditions are unlike the usual recording process required for this kind of music: no bass, no drums, no organ. The actors played live, outdoors on trench-made acoustic instruments, built with junk: a coal bucket, a pickle tin can.” If you have heard Fairport Convention’s rendition of “Si Tu Dois Partir,” a French translation of Bob Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” on their Unhalfbricking lp, then you have some idea of how this music sounds, at least to my ears.

Paintings by Henri Rousseau seem to inspire the art direction of some scenes in La France (2007), directed by Serge Bozon.

The unusual use of musical numbers aside, La France is also consistently unpredictable and seductive in its visual palette, particularly as the wandering regiment travels deeper and deeper into the woods. One critic noted that the cinematography (by Celine Bozon) often looks like compositions based on the paintings of Henri Rousseau and there is a high number of night scenes that help sustain the movie’s dream state quality. Bozon was also quoted in an interview that he shot the film using “a film stock never used before….Kodak 5299, which is usually used as an intermediate film in numerical post-production,” and helped lend the noctural sequences an “aquarium feeling.”

A scene from the bizarre war allegory/musical La France (2007) directed by Serge Bozon and starring Pascal Greggory (third from right).

At a certain point in La France, you begin to realize that it no longer matters whether Camille ever finds her missing husband or not because the entire movie seems to be about the journey, not the arrival. And it appears as if this eccentric group of characters are fated to wander in a circle forever with the war raging just over the horizon or around the next bend. We never actually see it – though there are some side effects of it like an exploding land mine that temporarily traps the soldiers in a cave-in or a nightmarish near-rape incident – but we always “feel” the presence of some major calamity just beyond the film’s frames.

Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerald Depardieu, makes a cameo appearance in Serge Bozon’s La France (2007). He died the following year.

War is hell – this we know from history if not movies – but World War I had an enormously devastating effect on Europe, Russia, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires with a loss of more than 15 million lives. The United States suffered less casualities in comparison since American forces didn’t enter the conflict until the final phase of the war in 1918 but France, like its neighbors, was almost crippled by the chaos. Toward the end of the war, the desertion rate of soldiers was at an all-time high. With the exception of the lieutenant, the soldiers in La France are not career military men and seem likely candidates for going AWOL. So it comes as no surprise when we hear them discuss Holland as their final destination instead of the front lines.

AWOL British soldiers (the two in the center) were captured and executed for deserting their duty during World War 1.

It’s quite plausible that Bozon’s entire film is a mood piece about the psychological and emotional state of the type of man who deserts in a war. Many of the conscripted soldiers in the final phases of the war were inexperienced and untrained in the ways of combat like the Frenchmen here; they were farmers, schoolteachers, bakers, shoemakers, the village layabouts. Camille is the only one in the regiment that we actually see sneak up on an enemy soldier and stab him to death. The other killings that occur aren’t the result of skirmishes with the enemy but something more seemingly innocuous – an encounter with a kindly farmer and his son who offer the soldiers refuge, a gesture that ends in tragedy. There was a similar deadpan absurdity at work in Richard Attenborough’s directorial debut – the all-star, epic 1969 musical homage to World War I, Oh! What a Lovely War – but La France is more elusive and mysterious in its meaning.

[Spoiler Alert] In an ironic twist ending, Camille finally encounters her husband (played by the late Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerald) and he doesn’t recognize her until she kisses him (yes, she’s still in her soldier drag). So, on a superficial level, you could say the movie has a happy ending as the fade-out leaves us with husband and wife reunited, but so many bizarre incidents have already occurred along the way that your final reaction may be, “So the point is – what?”  

French director Serge Bozon

Maybe I’m stating the obvious but it’s not really a World War I story. It’s not really a love story…at least not in any formulaic or conventional way. All I know is that I’m still trying to decide if it’s a dazzling but superficial and meaningless art object or some Pandora’s Box of hidden meaning that will reveal itself to me over time. It’s a most curious viewing experience – both abstract and haunting – and I applaud Serge Bozon for allowing viewers to decide for themselves.  And once again, the chameleon-like Sylvie Testud (Le Captive, Murderous Maids, La Vie en Rose, Sagan) proves she is one of the most intriguing actresses working in French cinema today, willing to take on many risky and challenging roles regardless of their commercial prospects or lack of them.

La France is still available on DVD from Kino Lorber in an English-subtitled print although it has no extra features other than the theatrical trailer and a stills gallery. It is also available on Amazon Prime. The film also makes me curious about Bozon’s other feature films, especially Tip Top (2013), a murder mystery investigated by two female detectives (Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain) and Ms. Hyde (2017), a gender twist on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic with Isabelle Huppert in the title role.

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