EmptyPARIS -- Serge Bozon's low-budget feature "La France" is that rarity: a war movie with no war scenes. Alternatively, it is a love story with no love scenes that happens to take place in a war zone. Either way, it was justly praised at this year's Festival de Cannes, and though its boxoffice prospects are minimal, it will reap festival awards and please art house audiences.
In the autumn of 1917, Camille (Sylvie Testud) receives a letter from her soldier-husband telling her that he is breaking up with her for good and that she will never see him again. She sets off for the front to find out what's going on. Disguising herself as a man -- or rather as a slightly androgynous youth -- she tags along with a group of a dozen soldiers who have split away from their regiment and are tramping through the fields and forests of eastern France, apparently aimlessly.
The men, under the leadership of a lieutenant (Pascal Greggory) who is never named, are more than usually literate, discussing recipes around the campfire or the mythical sunken world of Atlantis. They also, at four points in the film, break into song, confirming the spectator's mounting suspicion that the war, and Camille's quest, stand for something deeper.
The war itself is present only in the form of periodic outbreaks of explosions or the thunder of remote gunfire. Four Germans are seen riding on horseback at a distance but are not engaged. Incidents are few, the most notable being an encounter with two villagers who pull the soldiers out of a pit they have fallen into, an incident with a tragic coda.
The action, such as it is, concerns Camille's relations with the men, who, we learn an hour into the film, are in fact deserters heading for the Dutch border. Camille's femininity eventually is exposed, but by then, as one of the men comments, she has become "one of us." She does, as it turns out, meet her husband (Guillaume Depardieu) at the end, but this could by no stretch be said to represent a happy ending.
The deliberate pace, spare camera movements, formal framing of the soldiers and the slightly stylized acting add to the sense of a world cut off from mundane -- or, in the context of World War I, bloody -- reality. The songs, played on a ramshackle collection of acoustic instruments incorporating everyday objects, heighten the alienation effect, all the more so given that their sonorities are distinctly modern, closer to rock than to early 20th century music hall.
The acting is economical but first-rate, with Greggory in particular hinting at the inner torments of an officer leading his men to he knows not what disaster. (In a cryptic end title, Bozon informs us that the men never reached their destination.) The movie itself is a puzzle, but one that lingers in the mind long after the closing credits.
Les Films Pelleas
Director: Serge Bozon
Screenwriter: Axelle Ropert
Producer: David Thion
Executive producer: Helene Bastide
Director of photography: Celine Bozon
Production designer: Brigitte Brassart
Costume designer: Renaud Legrand
Music: Mehdi Zannad, Benjamin Esdraffo
Editor: Francois Quiquere
Camille: Sylvie Testud
Lieutenant: Pascal Greggory
Cadet: Guillaume Verdier
Jacques: Francois Negret
Antoine: Laurent Talon
Alfred: Pierre Leon
Pierre: Benjamin Esdraffo
Jean: Laurent Lacotte
Running time -- 102 minutes
No MPAA rating