||Andre Techine’s new film is set at the same time as Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s recent “Bon Voyage”--the days immediately following the German blitzkrieg against France in 1940, when citizens fled southward as the Third Republic’s defenses collapsed and the capital fell--but its tone couldn’t be more different. Rappeneau’s film was a large-scaled, romantic homage to Hollywood war epics of the 1940s, filled with comic as well as heroic elements. “Strayed” is much more intimate and quietly dramatic. But in its own way it’s just as effective.
As the picture opens, war widow Odile (Emmanuelle Beart) and her children, thirteen-year old Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and seven-year old Cathy (Clemence Meyer), are part of a convoy slowly moving south from Paris. In a scene that recalls the opening of Rene Clement’s masterpiece “Forbidden Games,” the company is strafed by a German plane, and the family’s car is destroyed. Fleeing into the nearby woods, they bump into Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), a rough but self-reliant young man whom Odile finds somewhat threatening but Philippe immediately admires, and the boy effectively bribes him to remain with them. Eventually Yvan finds a large, deserted country house that they break into and settle down in. Much of the film’s content records Odile’s gradual softening toward Yvan, whose rambles away from the mansion result in food for the table, although it’s also clear that the youngster is engaged in far more questionable activity too, like looting corpses left behind by the Germans. It’s also revealed that Yvan can’t read or write, and Odile, a schoolteacher, undertakes to instruct him. The contact suggests that intimacy might not be far behind. But the arrival of two French soldiers fleeing the debacle on the front, who are followed by the local police, ends the idyll and results in a tragic close reminiscent of Clement’s wartime film.
“Strayed” is clearly a film more about character than plot, a story based more on small gestures and barely perceptible undercurrents than on major plot turns. It’s very dependent, therefore, on sensitive direction and acting, and fortunately Techine brings a gentle, delicate touch to the material and Beart and Ulliel anchor it with turns that radiate both strength and vulnerability. Leprince-Ringuet is touching as the boy searching for a big brother and finding him in Yvan, while Meyer avoids affectation as the young Cathy. The cool, crisp cinematography of Agnes Godard and a supportive score by Philippe Sarde are additional virtues.
“Strayed” doesn’t match “Forbidden Games” in emotional impact, and “Bon Voyage” is more ambitious. But in its reserved, deliberate fashion it builds considerable power.