|by Peter Sobczynski
Although they have made more than their share of films on the subject of World War II, for decades it has seemed as if French filmmakers were unwilling (or possibly unable because of the large financial investment that would be required) to tell stories that
focused on those days in the summer of 1940 when German troops began to overrun Paris and ordinary citizens were forced to give up the lives they had known. One exception that was briefly released earlier this year was Andre Techine’s “Strayed”, an intriguing film that uses the events as the background for a psychological thriller that doesn’t simply play out as expected and features a stirring lead performance from Emmanuelle Beart, who is usually regarded as one of France’s finest actresses and this film certainly confirms that notion.
She plays Odile, a young widow who, as the film opens, is in the middle of a refugee convoy fleeing Paris with her two kids, 13-year-old Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and 7-year-old Cathy (Clemence Meyer). Although she may look delicate and out of her league, there is a steely-eyed will to Odile, which we see early on when a young drifter asks if he can ride along in her car and she refuses. Before long, German planes strafe the convoy and another drifter, a 17-year-old named Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel) , who save the lives of Odile and her children. Despite this, she still refuses to allow him to join them and it is only through the machinations of Philippe that they all journey together and eventually stumble upon a lavish abandoned house in the woods where they decide to set up house.
Virtually isolated (the neighboring villages have all been evacuated), they begin to form a sort of family unit, though the dynamics are sometimes a bit unsettling. Philippe looks to Yvan as a sort of big brother, though he objects when Yvan sometimes treats him cruelly. Odile also treat Yvan as a sort of additional child-when she learns that he is illiterate, she sets about teaching him to read and write. Yvan, on the other hand, has a somewhat different notion of what his relationship with Odile should be; he sees himself as both the head of the house and as her potential lover and starts acting increasingly unhinged when both ideas are thwarted. (Much of the conflict between them revolves around a gun that he owns but which she has taken and hidden.) Eventually, things come to a head when a pair of soldiers appear at the house one day; at a certain point, we aren’t sure whether the soldiers or Yvan pose the greater threat.
Although the plot, at least as I have described it, makes “Strayed” sound like a Gallic version of a Lifetime woman-in-jeopardy, Techine (acclaimed for such art-house fare as “Rendez-vous”, “Wild Reeds” and “Thieves”) has much more on his mind than just providing a bunch of cheap melodramatic thrills. Although there is a lot of dramatic tension in the film, it comes entirely from the characters and their behavior and not from the machinations of a ham-fisted screenplay. One of the ingenious things that he does is create the sense that Yvan may be just as supposedly vulnerable as Odile. As he is reticent to discuss his past, there is a suspicion that he might be a German himself (he finds the wreckage of a German plane pretty quickly) but there is also the potential notion that he might be a Jew trying to hide and the arrival of the soldiers, in either case, threatens his well-being. As for Odile, we are never quite sure what to make of her either; she clearly develops feelings for Yvan (as seen in one surprising scene) but it is clear that she will also do anything in her power to protect herself and her family; by first hiding the gun and then allowing the soldiers into the house, she may be willing to sacrifice her ersatz family member for the sake of her real ones. Even in the final scenes, which are quite surprising in light of the buildup, it is hard to get a fix on where her true feelings lie.
Besides Techine contributions, a lot of the credit for the success of “Strayed” belongs to Emmanuelle Beart, in one of the great performances of her career. Over the years, she has appeared in some of the great films to come out of France-a short list would include “Manon of the Spring”, “L’Enfer”, “Un Coeur en Hiver”, “Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud”, “Time Regained”, “8 Women” and the masterpiece “La Belle Noiseuse” (of course, in America, she is pretty much known only for being the babe in “Mission: Impossible”)-and has contributed a series of sharp, startling performances, especially because she is one of the most stunningly beautiful women in the world and there is the unspoken prejudice that an actress can either be gorgeous or talented, but not both. Her performance here is among her best because of her ability to shift between fear/confusion and grim determination in a heartbeat without ever making it seem forced. Odile, even at her most vulnerable, is not the easiest to like, and it is all the more to Beart credit that despite that, she still makes the character absolutely compelling to watch-whether it is out of fear of what may happen to her or simply fear of her.
Written by Gilles Taurand and Andre Techine. Directed by Andre Techine. Starring Emmanuelle Beart, Gaspard Ulliel, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet and Clemence Meyer. 2003. Unrated. A Wellspring Home Video release. $29.98
NEW AND NOTABLE
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (Warner Home Video. $29.98): The first of the Harry Potter films to feel like a genuine movie and not just a filmed book, director Alfonso Curaon brought a genuine sense of menace and fantasy to the proceedings and brought new life to a film series that seemed in danger of growing stale. As an added bonus, he filled out the enormous cast with what seemed to be half of British Equity-besides the usual suspects, there were intriguing turns from the likes of Gary Oldman and Emma Thompson and even Julie Christie pops up for a brief cameo.
MISSING (Universal Home Video. $9.98): Although some of the immediacy of Costa-Gavras’s cinematic indictment of U.S. foreign policy in Chile in the early 1970’s may have dissipated over time, there is still great power to be had in the performances of Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek-both memorable as an American man and his daughter-in-law as the search for the son/husband who disappeared during a violent American-sponsored coup. Although the storytelling is occasionally muddled, the raw emotion of their performances comes through quite clear and makes the film a moving experience even today.
SEINFELD: SEASONS 1 & 2 and SEASON 3 (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $49.95 each): One of the all-time great sitcoms finally gets the DVD treatment on 2 four-disc sets comprising the first three seasons of its run. Although there are a few clunkers to be had early on as the show was slowly gelling, the first set does contain a few gems (most notably the one where the gang was stuck waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant) and the second set, when the show first began to hit its stride, is one hit after another. (Who would have thought that parking garages, astronaut pens, subways, Pez dispensers and Keith Hernandez could inspire such hilarity.) For the still-loyal fans, the sets are jammed with so many extras-commentaries, deleted scenes, documentaries, interviews, stand-up footage and the proverbial much, much more-that it makes you shudder to wonder what the set would look like if it were actually about “something”.
THE TERMINAL (Universal/Dreamworks Home Video. $39.95): Tom Hanks shows us his Latka Gravas impression in Steven Spielberg’s weakest film since “Amistad”. Despite being a rare flop for the director, he has given the film a deluxe DVD package, including a bonus disc of materials surrounding the making of both the film and the admittedly spectacular airport-terminal set and a CD of the generally uninspired John Williams score.
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originally posted: 11/26/04 16:20:32
last updated: 12/04/04 09:20:39