Dir: Andre Techine. France. 2003. 95mins
Tender and tasteful, Strayed (Les Egares) takes a conventional approach to what will seem familiar material to most international audiences. Set amid sun-dappled vistas of rural France, it captures the conflicting emotions and underlying tensions of a lyrical interlude stolen from the chaos of wartime uncertainty. The star presence of Emmanuelle Beart and the popularity of the Gilles Perault novel upon which it is based should guarantee solid but unspectacular results in its home territory, where audiences have shown a marked antipathy to such critically-admired wartime stories as Bertrand Tavernier's Laissez-Passer and Jean-Paul Rappenau's Bon Voyage. Roman Polanksi's Palme d'Or winner The Pianist became an international phenomenon but that was an intensely personal and harrowing account of one man's guilty wartime survival. Strayed, which similarly premiered in competition at Cannes, is a much more languid affair that has more in common with romantic fiction than real life and can only expect to make a modest impact among older, nostalgic arthouse patrons, especially in territories where Beart and director Andre Techine have a proven track record.
Set in June 1940 as the Nazis march towards Paris, Strayed is not about the epic sweep of history but the intimate pockets of human experience that happen when daily routines are abandoned and society's rules no longer apply. Black-and-white footage is briefly used to sketch in the horrors of the time and convey a sense of imminent defeat. Then, the focus narrows to the plight of widowed schoolteacher Odile (Beart) and her two children Philippe (Leprince-Ringuet) and Cathy (Meyer). Part of the mass exodus to the south, the family join thousands of others on the long journey through the heart of France. When their car is destroyed by enemy fire, they head into the woods, assisted by enigmatic young man Yvan (Ulliel).
Separated from everyone else, they travel onwards until they reach an abandoned house where they eventually decide to stay. The house becomes a sanctuary from the real world. It has water, comfortable beds and a small reserve of food. Undisturbed by anyone, they gradually forge a semblance of family and stability that each of them desperately requires. Philippe sees Yvan as an older brother and substitute father figure for a parent killed in the very early stages of the fighting.
Initially unsettled by the young man, Odile grows to rely on him for fresh food and hungrily clings to this fleeting taste of normal life that war and widowhood have stolen from her. The comfort it provides is enough to melt her stern facade and ultimately reveal her emotional vulnerability.
Beautiful photography by Agnes Godard captures golden cornfields, misty damp mornings and the piercing glare of summer sunlight, which means that Strayed is always attractive to watch but perhaps a little too gorgeous for its own good. Unfolding at a measured pace, it retains a sense of understated mystery as we are allowed little hints that Yvan is not to be trusted. Arriving at their desert island house, he immediately cuts the telephone line and hides the radio before listening after hours, as if he expects to hear news of himself. He refuses to answer personal questions, revealing only that he cannot read or write and has no family to call his own. A force of nature who can forage in the forest and easily survive on his own wits, he proves to be a surprisingly docile, submissive figure, willing to accept Odile's conditions if he is to stay in the house and live with her family. He combines the instincts of a wild animal with a hunger for affection and normality and therefore suggests the common ground that will bring him closer to Odile.
Reunited with Techine for the first time since J'Embrasse Pas, Beart scarcely seems to have aged and barely seems old enough to be a mother of a teenage boy. Her bee-stung beauty is something of a barrier to our acceptance of a character who lacks the bone weary, care-ravaged look that such a woman might bear. One thinks of Sophia Loren's Oscar-winning performance in Two Women (1961) or Anna Magnani's iconic role in Rome, Open City (1945) as points of reference and Beart seems much too luminous and vital by comparison. Louis Malle's classic Lacombe Lucien (1974) is the point against which one judges Gaspard Ulliel's Yvan and perhaps that is the defining problem for Strayed - it reminds you too often of films that have addressed similar themes with much more depth and maturity. It may look very beautiful and exude sensitivity, but it does not quite cut to the heart.
Prod co: Fit Production
Int'l sales: Wild Bunch
Prod: Jean-Pierre Ramsay
Scr: Techine, Gilles Taurand based on the novel by Gilles Perault
Cinematography: Agnes Godard
Ed: Martine Giordano
Prod des: Ze Branco
Music: Philippe Sarde
Main cast: Emmanuelle Beart, Gaspard Ulliel, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Clemence Meyer