It says something about the confidence Serge Bozon has in his vision when, 25 minutes into his dreamy World War I film La France, his band of misfit soldiers...well...becomes a band of misfit soldiers, pulls out some instruments and launches into a musical number. On first viewing, I wondered if it was a bit late, arriving a quarter of the way into a film that made no previous announcement of its musical intentions. But as I went deeper into the film's journey of haunting memories and shocking realities, everything felt poetically perfect--the muted mood, the elliptical dialogue and yes, those unforgettable tunes.
The first song comes shortly after the film's heroine, Camille (Sylvie Testud), has finally secured a place traveling with a platoon, using the disguise of a 17-year-old boy. She left her village to find her husband after he sent her a letter telling her to stop writing and that she'd never see him again. Traveling alone as a woman wouldn't do, so she had to cut her hair and disguise herself. The soldiers tell this 17-year-old kid he's too young to join the army, but "he" just won't let the lieutenant (Pascal Greggory) and his men get rid of him.
Around this setup, Bozon weaves an atmosphere of horrifying reality and graceful poetry that never feels at odds with itself. With cinematographer CÚline Bozon, he captures both the beauty and the naturalism of his landscapes. The reserved-but-precise editing enforces the authenticity of the experiences, however eerie and otherworldly they may seem at times.
Four times during the film, the soldiers whip out their old, beat-up and/or homemade instruments and sing a song somehow related to one of the countries in the war (i.e. "I Left at Seventeen for Italy"). We aren't meant to believe that the soldiers are really lugging all their instruments around or that they'd beat out a few notes on the xylophone and launch into a song to announce themselves at a check point. And yet, echoing the film's visuals, the songs are performed in such a way that they feel natural, raw and down-to-earth.
The music at once recalls folk art and '60s psychedelic pop with delicately arranged, imperfectly warbled melodies and rich Beach Boys harmonies. These are not your usual glossy, over-produced, touched-up recordings, but raw, sometimes-of-tune and endearing performances. The songs can be at once catchy, upbeat ditties and somber, beautiful meditations. They linger.
It all adds to the atmosphere, which nicely accents the mysteries that swirl around the film, such as the kind of mission the platoon is on and the whereabouts of Camille's husband. But La France is not a film about answers so much as it's about the emotional toll war requires and the decisions and actions that alter the course of lives. Wherever it is that Camille and these soldiers are heading, you understand that if they ever return to the world they once knew, they'll never return completely.
Often times low-profile releases get the short shrift when it comes to picture quality, but I'm happy to report that that's not the case with La France. The film is absolutely lovely to look at, and Lorber's DVD release does justice to its rich landcapes, atmospheric lighting and strong details. Bright daylight scenes and moody night scenes with blacks and gradient shadows all look lovely.
Watching on a very large screen may of course reveal the limitations of the DVD format, but there is little-to-no distracting compression artifacts from a normal viewing distance. I have a feeling this transfer will look great in HD, but for now we'll have to enjoy this quality DVD release.
The DVD contains everything French speakers and English readers need, and nothing else. The stereo track is well-mixed and clear, which is especially impressive when you note that the music was recorded live on location to make the tension of singing as daunting as the tension of battle. The optional English subtitles feature a few lines that seem awkwardly translated, but for the most part are serviceable.
The extras on the disc are in no way comprehensive. The Song Selection option is nice, allowing you to watch the four musical numbers without skipping around chapters on the main feature, but features no material that isn't in the film. The songs contain the same optional subtitles and quality transfer of the main film.
The presentation of the theatrical trailer is not ideal, in a letterboxed 4x3 transfer with burnt-in subtitles. But it is a well-edited piece that takes advantage of its source's superb visuals.
There are also 15 stills and one director-behind-the-scenes shot in the routinephoto gallery.
Luckily for Lorber, fans of the film can enjoy repeated viewings without extras. For example, you could focus on the dialogue in one viewing, then turn off the subtitles and revel in the visuals the next and get completely different experiences out of the film.
La France most likely isn't for everyone, but fans of one-of-a-kind, audacious and hard-to-forget cinema will find the film, like its songs, hard to get out of their heads.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.