War films detailing the loneliness, camaraderie, fears and moral questionings experienced by those in battle and on the home front are nothing new. Their modus operandi have almost devolved into templates. French filmmaker Serge Bozon’s La France is no exception in that regard, but a series of jaw-dropping surprises transform the film into a wartime chronicle unlike any ever filmed.
The story follows a young housewife named Camille whose husband fights on the front during WWI. When she receives a letter from him unexpectedly breaking off their marriage, she naively sets off to find him, but not before disguising herself as a teenage boy by shearing her hair and binding her breasts (an amazing, believable transformation by actress Sylvie Testud).
Wandering the blue-grey monochrome French countryside, Camille encounters a lost squadron and attaches to them, slowly gaining their trust without revealing her identity.
The men are weary, exhausted and hold a secret of their own, and their malaise manifests in the most inexplicable manner. At odd moments, they transform into a ramshackle Pop group, playing bittersweet love songs on instruments made from discarded odds and ends. It’s a striking counter to the quiet, somber cross-country meanderings. And as the journey grows bleak and more dangerous, this music binds the travelers together and serves as a hopeful respite for all.
Is the music real, though? Or does it exist solely in their minds? La France gives no answer. But when juxtaposed with the hellish realities of war, musical numbers popping up randomly on the battlefield seem far less absurd.
Kino’s edition of La France is barebones in the bonuses division, featuring only a stills gallery, the theatrical trailer and an option to watch the musical sequences individually. Featurettes on the production and Bozon’s inspiration would have been welcome, but their absence almost works in the film’s favor, adding an aura of mystery to this ambitious wonder. Grade: A