Nobody does sensual like French cinema.
(Wellspring) Emmanuelle Beart, Gaspard Ulliel, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Clemence Meyer, Samuel Labarthe, Jean Fornerod. Directed by Andre Techine
In times of war, ordinary people are sometimes caught up in extraordinary situations, leading them to do things they never would have considered in simpler times. When the world turns upside down, we sometimes find ourselves relying on those we might not have otherwise.
Odile (Beart) is a schoolteacher and mother who has already given a great deal to the war. Her husband was killed early on during the German invasion of France. With the Nazis knocking on the doorstep of Paris, thousands of terrified citizens flee for the countryside and what they thought was safety. Odile and her children, teenaged Philippe (Leprince-Ringuet) and young Cathy (Meyer) are driving down a refugee-choked road when German bombers suddenly, viciously drop bombs on the road and gun down survivors. The three barely escape and watch their car get annihilated. When Philippe panics and begins to run, he is hauled down by a young man with a shaven head who we later find out is named Yvan (Ulliel), saving him from the guns. Yvan leads the family into the woods.
After spending the night in the woods, a new experience for the children who up to then had lived a privileged existence, Yvan discovers a large villa in the woods. It has been abandoned by the owners but otherwise is perfectly habitable, with food stores, running water and electricity. Yvan wants to break in and stay in relative safety there; Odile, with her middle class standards, abhors the idea and urges them to find a village or someplace where they can stay. Yvan convinces her that the children need rest and a place to clean up and have a meal. He essentially winds up breaking in whether she likes it or not. Soon, they are living there as a family.
However it is a dysfunctional family. Odile is contemptuous of Yvan, thinking he is wild and uncouth. However, she recognizes that without him, they would be unable to survive as he supplies them with food when the stores left behind run out. At first she wants to hike to a nearby village but when that nearly turns into disaster, she retreats back to the villa, there to stay.
For Yvan’s part, he is attracted to the older woman in a sexual way. The other children look up to Yvan as a big brother, perhaps even a surrogate father – the latter role Yvan is all too happy to play. As the family begins to rely on Yvan more and more, Odile becomes oddly attracted to him. It’s as if she is reverting to a more primal mode, wanting to keep a provider close at hand by any means necessary.
The idyll, as complicated as it already is, becomes more so with the arrival of two French soldiers. Yvan, feeling threatened, wants to kill them so that they don’t report the squatters to the authorities. Odile is glad to have the gentle Robert (Labarthe) for company and the carefree Georges (Fornerod) as well. However, under the surfaces of each member of this drama are secrets unbeknownst to one another. When they rely on each other for their very survival, what will become of them when those secrets begin to emerge?
Beautifully photographed in the area around Castres, France, Techine brings an idyllic quality to the country home and its inhabitants. The horrors and realities of war are far away from this secluded spot. Beart is wonderful as Odile, a widow coping with the loss of her husband and increasingly vulnerable in a harsh world. When a life preserver is thrown her way, her instincts tell her to resist but inevitably she reverts to a different state of mind, one of the primal urges of women early in human history in which finding a provider was paramount, so being attractive to those providers became a survival skill. Odile doesn’t even realize that she is operating on this basis.
Ulliel, who appeared in the excellent Brotherhood of the Wolf, has a very complicated role to take on, and he handles it extremely well. Yvan has grown up on his own and lacks many social graces and even basics, such as reading and writing. He is often unsure how to act or react in the presence of a beautiful woman, and his own raging hormones begin to guide him. He is alternately cruel and kind, uncaring and helpful, angry and hurt. In other words, like most teenagers, he is going through a maelstrom of emotions, sometimes several at once.
Leprince-Ringuet is also impressive as Philippe, who is a few years younger than Yvan yet worships him as a hero. He is desperately searching for a role model now that his father is gone and he uses Philippe to fill that void, perhaps unaware of the consequences of that to his mother. When Yvan casually rejects him, he turns on Yvan as only a hurt, rejected young boy can.
The family’s struggle to find food and shelter without being detected by Nazis or by the police of the Vichy government lend an air of palpable suspense that permeates the film. While not an overt thriller, it nonetheless carries elements of that genre and integrates it nicely into the overall feel of the movie; the idyll being one that doesn’t belong to them and one they know they must pay for eventually.
The movie does move very slowly towards its climax, and is somewhat talky in places. I love good dialogue as much as the next guy, but sometimes silence and circumstance can be a far more effective tool in getting the story across.
As good as Beart is here, when she turns the corner from being suspicious of Yvan to being attracted to him, the emotional shift doesn’t feel genuine. I understand how it could happen but the writers and Beart failed to make the connection onscreen. I think the movie would have benefited had they done so.
Other than those quibbles, this is a solid movie. Lately I’ve found myself having a great deal of affection for French cinema, and while this isn’t the finest example of it out there, it is nonetheless worth seeing if you can find it (I know it is available on Netflix, which is where I found it). I urge you to watch it with a good bottle of wine to wash it down with – French cinema, like French wine, alters perception in subtle ways.
WHY RENT THIS: Masterful performances by Beart, Ulliel and Leprince-Ringuet bring the tensions of an untenable situation to life. Gorgeous cinematography of the French countryside that will gladden the soul in an otherwise bleak tale. Director Techine creates a marvelous air of tension that permeates the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The sexual attraction between Odile and Yvan, while natural on his end, doesn’t make as much sense on hers. The movie can be a bit too talky in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some terrifying wartime violence, smoking, drinking, nudity and sex between a teenaged boy and an adult woman. This is definitely for adult audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on the novel “Le Garçon aux Yeux Gris” by French novelist Gilles Perreault.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Nobel Son