LES ÉGARÉS (2004)
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005
In recent years it became quite fashionable for Americans to mock French over their alleged lack of martial spirits, for which surrender of France to Nazi Germany is often used as the best proof. French filmmaker Andre Téchiné in his 2004 drama STRAYED shows that the event was anything but simple or non-traumatic for French.
For the first few months of WW2 French were quite serious about fighting Germans, at least serious enough for protagonist of the film, schoolteacher Odille (played by Emmanuele Béart), to lose a husband in one of border clashes. In June 1940, when the film starts, French defensive lines are broken, Paris is being evacuated and French roads are clogged by endless columns of refugees fleeing south. Those column not only prevent creation of any meaningful defence, but also represent easy target for Luftwaffe whose pilots slaughter helpless civilians en masse thus creating additional mayhem and panic. In one of such raids Odille, a mother of two, has lost a car. Her family is rescued by Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), resourceful blue-collar youth who advises that it is much safer travelling through woods and back roads. His advice is reluctantly taken, just he reluctantly becomes some sort of protector and food provider for the family. Finally, four of them stumble into abandoned country house in a middle of nowhere. Odille there finds not only food and shelter, but some sort of middle-class normalcy, with Yvan becoming substitute father for some of her children. But this utopia doesn’t last long, because Yvan becomes increasingly nervous with a prospect of someone else, especially authorities, coming to the house.
Unlike most films dealing with WW2, STRAYED takes very simplistic and minimalist approach towards that traumatic chapter of world history. Actual carnage is seen only in beginning, but the real psychological impact of those horrors displays itself gradually and through the set of very revealing episodes. Good example are the scenes in which protagonists travel through the woods and are surrounded by great natural beauty, yet all-too-aware that they lack food, water and all the necessary ingredients of civilisation.
But the real strength of the film is in characterisation. Extreme situation in which protagonists find themselves is excellent opportunity for Techine to explore how war destroys not only lives, but also the delicate fabric of the modern society, forcing two different worlds to mix in unexpected ways. Odille, brilliantly played by Emmanuele Béart, who used to be respected member of society, is utterly lost without that society and forced to depend on someone she could have scorned under normal circumstances. On the other hand, Yvan, sees the collapse of society as an opportunity to turn the tables and once in life enjoys many things which had been denied to him. Yet, he, just like Odillle, can’t overcome boundaries set by his previous life, especially because of his immaturity that would be revealed in most unexpected ways – both during the obligatory love scene and during the film’s shocking ending.
The ending of the film is also shocking in another way, at least to the audience accustomed to Hollywood version of WW2. The film provides some sort of closure at the historical point in which conventional WW2 film would only begin. This might look like a surprise, but it works perfectly in the context of STRAYED – what looks like a disgrace from historical perspective, looks perfectly normal from the perspective of protagonists.
Unfortunately, Téchiné failed to underline that point. Instead, he opted for pathos, embodied in documentary footage which occasionally interrupts the plot. This not only breaks film’s narrative structure, but also takes away the realism, which is one of the greatest assets of STRAYED.
However, this film nevertheless deserves praise, not only because of the quality of acting and intelligent script, but also because it makes many viewers to wonder what would they do if they or their countries ever find themselves in the situation faced by protagonists.
RATING: 6/10 (++)