By way of getting to the film, it seems safe to say that the influence of American B-movie maverick Jacques Tourneur may now be dormant in the U.S. but it is alive and kicking in Europe. First Pedro Costa and now Serge Bozon with his new film La France not only cite Tourneur's pragmatic genre poetry as an influence, but have re-interpreted his studio-era sneaky artistry for an entirely different kind of cinema.
Costa may have lived with Tourneur in his work for a longer period of time, and as such displayed a deeply ingrained translation of the director's ambiance into socially and politically progressive poetics, but La France too proudly wears Tourneur on its sleeve. A First World War picaresque, in La France's night scenes pools of luminescence miraculously light an entire errant platoon of French troops and leave them warm-blooded and thoughtfully cared after in this special kind of night vision, yet utterly vulnerable to, and almost anonymous in, the surrounding darkness. For it is when shadows start to close off the visible world, the one we think we see and therefore think we understand, that the film speaks of Tourneur's ambient terrors and atmospheric menace, the irrational spilling out of the inkiness and insulating our generic heroes and heroines even as its dark cushion suggests the awful unknown hiding in its folds—the war.
While we are left guessing for a long time as to what precisely this wandering squad of Frenchmen are up to, the motivation for Camille (Sylvie Testud) is perhaps the only clarity in the entire film: overwhelmingly in love with her enlisted husband, the receipt of a cryptic Dear Jane letter spurs Camille to cross-dress and wander the countryside near the Front until she finds the likewise questing unit of wayward soldiers led by Pascal Greggory.
Bareness and simplicity define this oddity of a war film, which is why the pooling shadows and light of the evenings speak so loudly, for they enrich a mysteriously simplified work. Shot entirely on location in the French countryside, and interspersed with songs performed and recorded live by the soldiers of Greggory's squad, this is a picaresque with few adventures and tensions along the way and a great deal of circulation: that of troop movement, of landscape, of atmosphere, of ambient mystery and mostly unmentioned threats and fears, all of which bob and weave in the relaxed episodes of the picaresque, but here softened darkly and de-dramatized through this contagious dread amongst the ever-mobile unit.
Bozon has been known to describe the film's unique night-time lighting as producing an "aquarium effect," but it is really the film's narrative and character activity that produce this feeling in the mise-en-scène: a sort of unguided, almost floating wandering within a transparent and permeable but nevertheless palpable environment. And so it is: we see no war (for the soldiers) and barely any love (for Camille), and instead must strain our eyes at the suggestive vagueness of the night, catch a particular lyric or melody of the wry, playful, and quite sad 1960s-ish pop songs of the troops, or see in the gruff silences and progress of the daytime marches the melancholy for all that is off-screen and outside of La France.
Indeed, so removed from concreteness and convention is the film that even this fragile, grim tone somehow encompasses a great deal of whimsy, from the music to such fairy-tale like inclusions as mounted German soldiers with lances—like some dark knights trawling the deep forest for our trespassing mischief-makers—and the kind of happenstance occurrences and revelations, done so simply and so matter of factly (I'm thinking of, to avoid spoilers, a tree-bound hiding spot, an almost comedic pitfall turned fatal and fatalistic respite, a barn dance between two men and a knife, a brilliant cameo that could only mean one wonderful thing) that they give an aura of ambiguous fantasy to the story. It is a fantasy that hangs between something magical and something much darker, and as the subject precludes the tone, La France bends caringly, but inevitably towards a darkness rather than a promising magic. As removed from the Front as it the film is, Bozon brings to life an entire and very special kind of unspoken burden of suffering that has little to do with combat conditions and a great deal to do with living in the proximity to combat, having to live with combat, and having lived through combat.