Weekly Links: Jihad for La France

I review three new movies in the traditionally dead post-Labor Day weekend. Bangkok Dangerous didn’t screen for press, but the originality of La France is a trade-off I’ll take.

I Served the King of England

A Jihad for Love

La France (Herald link is dead; review below)

by Robert Horton

There’s no other war movie quite like “La France,” a lyrical, award-winning French film that takes a fresh angle on the First World War. With songs.

It’s certainly not the only musical about WWI; that’s old hat, if you’ve seen “Oh! What a Lovely War.” Actually, “La France” isn’t exactly a musical, either. The characters simply break into song at a handful of distinct moments.

The picture begins in somewhat normal fashion, as a young woman (Sylvie Testud), who lives not far from the Front, receives a letter from her soldier husband. Instantly, she determines to find him in the trenches.

Chopping off her hair and adopting boy’s clothes, she falls in with a strangely drifting platoon of French troops, led by a melancholy but kindly officer (Pascal Greggory).

For the rest of the film, she trails along with them, accepted as a lad. Incidents happen, but for most of the movie the soldiers seem to trudge through a heavy, quiet, green-blue landscape.

From very early on “La France” takes on the quality of a “Twilight Zone” episode, even though there is nothing supernatural about its story. The characters feel as though they are in some kind of limbo, the war itself leaving only vestiges of its devastating presence—a graveyard, a body, a deep muddy trench.

And then there are the songs, which arise from nowhere and quickly return there. They are performed by the soldiers, who pull accordion and impromptu guitar from their kits, singing along to a tune that has a distinctly 1960s-Brit-pop feel to it. (That’s because the songs are based on a 1960s Brit-pop tune, “Gospel Lane.”)

If you are thinking this doesn’t sound like any kind of movie you’ve ever seen, you are right. “La France,” directed by Serge Bozon, has an unpredictable tread from scene to scene.

At times evoking the fairy-tale vibe of “The Night of the Hunter,” or the surreal gloom of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bozon manages to suspend all sense of the real world, yet he finds something real and haunting in this untruth. I can see how this might turn off some viewers. Not this one.

On KUOW-FM, I talk about La France and an upcoming film noir series: listen here. The film talk begins at 34:00.