It can be comforting (stress relieving, easy) to fall into a fluffy mountain of Hallmark-y Christmas movies this time of year. But overdo it, and it can be like eating one too many sugar cookies.
To balance out “The Princess Switch,” I needed something more cerebral, and chose “La France,” a film I’ve left on the way-back burner for an inexcusably long time.
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Calling a film “arty and hypnotic” can be doublespeak for weird and boring. This is not the case for the truly artful and mesmerizing “La France,” from writer-director Serge Bozon. The First World War era movie illuminates the signifigance of camaraderie, and spousal love.
At the start of “La France,” Camille, a young farm girl (played by Sylvie Testud), is pining for her husband who is ostensibly fighting somewhere on the Western Front. She receives a short, confusing letter from him breaking off their relationship. She immediately strikes out to find him, but quickly finds that she cannot do as she pleases.
It’s 1917 in rural France, and in order to be able to begin her quest, she disguises herself as a boy.
Camille comes across the wandering 80th infantry regiment led by a kind lieutenant (Pascal Greggory). They try to shake free of her – or the boy they believe her to be – but being with them makes her feel close to her husband so she won’t leave their sides. Their journey is an allegory, told in a delightfully offbeat and poetic reverie.
Four times the soldiers break out into 1960s-era style pop songs about a woman longing for her absent lover. The modernism may because “the menace of war is unceasing, or even eternal” (Bozon), but this is also where the film’s raw emotion pours out, returning us to the romantic plot-line of Camille’s devotion to her husband. The anachronism is not a misstep as you might expect; it’s as beautiful as the forests the soldiers traverse, and the utopian Atlantis they read – and dream – about.
“La France” sat unwatched in my queue for such a long time because I knew nothing about it, and I feared it would be filled with hard-to-watch dramatizations of the Great War. Instead, it’s a romance at the core, devoid of battle scenes altogether. When there are moments of violence, they mostly erupt as meaningful acts of selflessness. And largely it’s calming: long shot, plein-air cinematography from the director’s sister Celine Bozon is perfectly wed to the film’s pacing and precise dialogue.
The period drama is original and unique, and if you watch it (jump in, skip the trailer), you’ll be able to say you’ve seen a unicorn.
But “La France” it’s also familiar. It’s an anti-war story nestled in the ideals of brotherhood, and cloaked in loss and love.
“La France” is available to stream on Amazon, but at the time of this writing is also currently available to stream for free with Tubi here and for free with Vudu here.
Not rated, but intended for mature audiences: contains wartime violence, brief nudity and sexual situations.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll want to wander over to The Period Films List. You’ll especially like the Best Period Dramas: First World War Era List. Also see our review of Parade’s End.