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A wartime drama that’s more about the retreat than the offensive, Christian Carion’s Come What May (En mai, fais ce qu’il te plait) depicts a few of the many lives upended when Germany attacked France in May 1940, forcing 8 million citizens to flee the invading Nazi army in what would become one of the greatest population exoduses in modern history.
It’s an impressive backdrop to what’s otherwise a polished period piece without much of a bite to it, hitting all the right notes but doing nothing that feels exciting or out of the ordinary. Like last year’s similarly themed Suite Francaise, May stands to underperform in theaters, though its subject and setting should help push it across French borders into art houses and VOD slots overseas.
Carion is no stranger to making historical frescoes with broad middlebrow appeal: His 2005 feel-goodish WWI flick, Joyeux Noel, grossed over $1 million in the U.S. and was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar. And his underrated 2009 Cold War thriller, Farewell, featured strong performances from two lauded filmmakers in their own right: Emir Kusturica (Underground) and Guillaume Canet (Tell No One).
In Come What May, the writer-director (working with co-scribes Laure Irrmann and Andrew Bampfield) attempts to tell a sprawling story on an intimate scale, following a handful of characters on the run from Wehrmacht forces as they blaze through the Ardennes en route to a quick victory (France surrendered less than 45 days after the invasion, falling under Nazi rule until December 1944).
The film focuses on a German resistant, Hans (August Diehl), and his son, Max (Joshio Marlon), who flee their homeland to the pastoral fields of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, only to find their new enclave evacuated when war heads their way. With a mayor, Paul (Olivier Gourmet), and schoolteacher, Suzanne (Alice Isaaz), leading the charge, the townsfolk pack their belongings and slowly make the journey — by foot and horse-drawn carriage — to the west, with the Nazis hot on their tail.
In the meantime, Hans has landed in prison (for reasons first explained in a vague montage sequence), but is set free as soon as the Germans invade. He crosses paths with a Scottish captain, Percy (Matthew Rhys), whose entire squad is gunned down by Reich soldiers, leaving the two men to fend for themselves as Hans sets out in search of his son, and Percy in search of the retreating British army.
Carion systematically crosscuts between the parallel storylines, following Max and the villagers making their way toward the coastal city of Dieppe, with Hans and Percy only a few steps behind them. Both teams face major obstacles along the road: The town caravan is attacked by German bombers (in one of the film’s more striking set pieces), while the pair of wanderers — who clash at first but eventually warm up to one another — engage in deadly combat with the enemy.
The emotional arcs are easy to telegraph and far from groundbreaking: Hans tries against all odds to reunite with his son, while Paul tries to do what’s best for his constituents amid the Nazi onslaught. Suzanne winds up becoming a surrogate mom to Max, shedding tears when he whips out family photos, while the Scotsman Percy somehow finds himself lugging a set of bagpipes across the countryside — and finally using them during an extremely overstated standoff with the bad guys.
There are scattered moments that resonate, such as when the caravan runs into a battalion of Panzers, the tanks ripping through fields and leaving jagged treads in their wake. But other scenes come across as bloated or phony, including a subplot about a pretentious German filmmaker (Thomas Schmauser) documenting the French retreat, the man depicted as a pure caricature of evil Nazi artistry.
The result is a film that never feels as intense as it should, even if committed performances — especially from the non-Frenchies Diehl (Inglourious Basterds) and Rhys (co-star on The Americans) — take the characters farther than they may have appeared on the page. Yet the overall effect is still too bland to cause a real stir, and Carion concludes the long voyage pretty much in the way you expect.
With a budget of €15 million ($16 million), May has the slick, sun-dappled look of many a Euro period piece, using its setting to the fullest — including enough picturesque vistas to make you want to move to northern France, Nazis or not. Along with Pierre Cottereau’s handsome visuals, a score by Ennio Morricone offers up comforting melodies, accompanying a movie that retreats way too often toward safe cinematic ground.
Production companies: Nord-Ouest Films, Pathe, France 2 Cinema, Appaloosa Distribution, Une Hirondelle Productions
Cast: August Diehl, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Alice Isaaz, Matthew Rhys, Joshio Marlon
Director: Christian Carion
Screenwriters: Christian Carion, Laure Irrmann, Andrew Bampfield
Producers: Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boeffard
Executive producers: Eve Francois-Machuel, Stephane Riga
Director of photography: Pierre Cottereau
Production designer: Jean-Michel Simonet
Costume designer: Monic Parelle
Editor: Laure Gardette
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Casting directors: Susie Figgis, Anne Walcher, Franziska Aigner-Kuhn
Sales agent: Pathe International
No rating, 114 minutes