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Fans of the Scottish indie pop-rock ensemble Belle & Sebastian may not know that their favorite band took its name from a popular French TV series of the 1960’s. That program is now the subject of a pricey and polished remake from director Nicolas Vanier (The Last Trapper), in a film that combines impressive landscape photography and animal wrangling with a schmaltzy, small-town story set during WWII. For those interested in watching the Gallic equivalent of Lassie vs. the Nazis, this may be your movie.
Otherwise, the Gaumont-backed €10 million ($13 million) period piece may find a decent following for its pre-Christmas local release, especially among tykes off from school for the holidays. Overseas action will be primarily limited to Francophone territories and fests, beginning with a competition bow in Rome’s Alice in the Cities section.
The original series, which first aired in France in 1965, was created by actress Cecile Aubry (who starred in Henry Hathaway’s The Black Rose alongside Tyrone Power and Orson Welles), and met with much success both at home and abroad, including an English-language version broadcast on BBC1. Set in a picturesque village in the French Alps, the show focused on motherless young boy, Sebastian (played here by Felix Bossuet), and the giant white Pyrenean Mountain Dog named Belle that he befriends, resulting in all sorts of fun-loving adventures and frolicking in the snow.
Fifty years later, Vanier and co-writers Juliette Sales (Dorothy Mills) and Fabien Suarez (L’Entente cordial) attempt to reboot the material and, in a move similar to Christophe Barratier’s recent remake of War of the Buttons, give it more weight by setting the action in 1943, with a plot involving Nazis trying to flush Resistant smugglers out of the village.
That decision seems like a particularly heavy one for a film ostensibly about a kid and his fluffy dog, and it puts a rather ridiculous damper on what’s otherwise a well-crafted outdoor action-adventure in the old school Disney tradition.
After introducing us to Sebastian and his harsh, brandy-swigging caretaker, Cesar (vet Tcheky Karyo, La Femme Nikita), we soon get a glimpse of the town’s troubling situation, where an evil SS officer (Andreas Pietschmann) is doing his best to stop a brave doctor (Dimitri Storoge) and his beautiful, baker girlfriend (Margaux Chatelier) from helping Jewish refugees escape into Switzerland.
Somehow, that story gets combined with one revealing how Sebastian first crosses paths with Belle in the mountains, where she’s known as “the beast” and is accused of attacking Cesar’s flock of sheep. But the boy manages to win over the savage (and apparently abused) hound, and they soon forge a solid bond, which includes plenty of running and petting, as well as conversations where Sebastian talks a lot and Belle gets lots of reaction shots.
Although Vanier definitely stumbles in his attempts to introduce Vichy-era gravitas into such a carefree tale, the director — whose background making nature docs clearly prepared him for this gig — does an excellent job capturing the breathtaking scenery, using oodles of exteriors filmed in the Haute Maurienne-Vanoise valley of France’s Rhone-Alps region. With DP Eric Guichard (Possibility of an Island) shooting in 35mm and resorting to very little CGI for all the animal stunts, the movie has a classic Call of the Wild flavor, and could very well have been made thirty years ago.
This is why its disconcerting mix of canine companionship and wartime histrionics hardly feels necessary, and, like the series’ original theme song (covered here by the French pop singer Zaz), Belle & Sebastian may have played better as pure nostalgic kitsch, rather than as historical kitsch for kids.
While performances are good across the board, the show is ultimately stolen by Belle’s stand-in — a talented dog with the uncanny name of Garfield.
Venue: Rome Film Festival (Alice in the Cities); opens Wednesday, Dec. 18 (in France)
Production companies: Radar Films, Epithete Films, Gaumont
Cast: Felix Bossuet, Tcheky Karyo, Margaux Chatelier, Dimitri Storoge, Andreas Pietschmann
Director: Nicolas Vanier
Screenwriters: Juliette Sales, Fabien Suarez, Nicolas Vanier, based on the TV series written and directed by Cecile Aubry
Producers: Clement Miserez, Matthieu Warter, Frederic Brillion, Gilles Legrand
Director of photography: Eric Guichard
Production designer: Sebastian Birchler
Costume designer: Adelaide Gosselin
Music: Armand Amar
Editors: Raphaele Urtin, Stephanie Pedelacq
Sales agent: Gaumont
No rating, 98 minutes
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