SFIFF: On tour

Pub date April 23, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

› kimberly@sfbg.com

SFIFF His last letter read, "Forget me" and "I’m never coming back." But instead of crying, waiting, hoping he’ll return, or pleading, "Please, Mr. Postman, look and see, if there’s a letter, a letter for me," she decides she will follow him, wherever he may go, because maybe, just maybe, one fine day, they’ll meet once more, and he’ll want the love he threw away before.

What follows is the sublime La France (2007), a holy union of war movie and love story, consecrated in the same chapel of pop that houses tearful penitent Brian Wilson, radiant nun Anna Karina, and verse-scribbling choir boy Jacques Brel — and stage-set with the mist-swathed romanticism of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

After our heroine and "Dear Jeanne" letter recipient Camille (Sylvie Testud) dons the boyish garb of a wartime Viola to unearth news of her soldier husband, she stumbles on a mysterious military troop slumbering uneasily in the woods. Camille wants to eat like them, march like them, and become one of them, with the sacrificial passion of a lover desperate to wear the garments and walk in the footsteps of her pined-for mate. But in the fall of 1917, all is not-so-quiet far from the Western front as director Serge Bozon’s band of brothers — many played by the actor-auteur’s fellow French film critics — pick up impromptu instruments fashioned from canteens and pots to play the sweetest yet strikingly barbed lovelorn tunes. What better way to meet doom while their country takes some of the heaviest casualties of World War I? What better way to mend a broken heart?

La France is "a war movie but almost in the absence of war and a love movie almost in the absence of love," as Bozon explains via e-mail while attending a Buenos Aires film festival. It turns gracefully on "a quest — just like the war, because we are never in the battlefields. So the war is more a horizon — something outside, always close but almost never reached.

"The unifying impulse is this magnetization, by definition from outside," he continues. "I think here the master of magnetization is Jacques Tourneur, the Henry James of cinema: how to drive la mise en scène by the absence of something at the (double) center of the story."

Balancing the visually sumptuous La France (lensed by the director’s sister Céline) on what he describes as the edge and arrogance of English pop-sike and the narcotic etherealness of California sunshine pop, Bozon has made one of the most unique films in the festival. No joke. He sports only two shortish works — the 84-minute L’Amitie (1998) and the 59-minute Mods (2002) — beneath the belt of his modish slacks: La France is his first feature. It’s also inadvertently launched something of a burgeoning DJ career for the music-obsessed director, who promises to draw from his healthy garage rock and Northern soul singles collection for at least one dance-party during the fest.

SFBG Why did you title the film La France? Does the soldiers’ plight say something about your country in general?

SERGE BOZON To put it in the words of Michel Delahaye, one of my favorite film critics from the ’60s (in Cahiers du Cinéma) who wrote a paper about La France, I’ve tried to tell the story of those men who "got lost in the shadow of victory."

I wanted to deal with desertion, not to tell the story of the deserters who were caught by the French army, not to tell the story of the deserters who managed to reach their goal, but to tell the story of the deserters "in between," because they are the only ones who have left no trace (no trace in France, because they managed to escape France, and no trace in any other country, because they never attained their destination). So it’s like a secret story that only fiction can tell. To sum up, this crucial part of French history can only exist through fiction. That’s why I chose the title.

Just listen to "Going All the Way" by the Squires or "On Tour" by the Chancellors (two garage diamonds found by the mighty Tim Warren of Crypt Records), and you’ll understand the relation of this title to the music. "On Tour" is a song, as you can guess, about the life of a group on tour (the girls, the cities, the trains, boats and planes). But like all the real garage bands, the Chancellors never played even once outside their own city (Potsdam, actually). Now think about the "tour" of my soldiers. You begin by expecting some light pop, but in the end it’s only frustration and anger.

SFBG What do war movies mean to you?

SB It is the only classic American genre that is still alive in France, where a lot of war movies are made each year. The menace of war is unceasing — or even eternal. To be more precise, my movie is more a movie about the menace of war than about the war itself, so I could have done it in a present-day setting. But what I wanted, from a historical point of view, is to deal with the question of desertion, which was huge in France in 1917. I filmed only the menace, and this menace is in our present and desertion is, still, in our present history — "needles and pins," to quote the Ramones covering the Searchers.

SFBG Which war movies have intrigued you or inspired La France specifically?

SB The American and Russian war movies of the ’40s and ’50s. And I must press this point: the movies of [Samuel] Fuller, [John] Ford, [Raoul] Walsh, Tourneur, [Howard] Hawks are not more important for me than the sublime Russian war movies — for example [Ivan] Pyryev’s Tales of the Siberian Land (1947), [Leonid] Lukov’s Two Soldiers (1943), [Yuli] Raizman’s Mashenka (1942), [Alexander] Macheret’s Soldiers of the Swamp (1939).

In all of these movies, contrary to Walsh, Fuller, and company, you have songs in crucial moments and the moods do not have to be hard-boiled all the time. There is a lot of childish tenderness and emotive exuberance among the soldiers, because the relation of men to virility is more naive. You also have beautiful female characters. Mashenka, for example, is a war movie about a woman. You also have a non-American, rural way of filming the landscapes with a romantic touch (in the musical sense, like Berlioz).

For example, A Good Lad from 1943 by Boris Barnet is — in one hour! — a musical with opera singing during the war scenes, a comedy, a love story, and a war movie, and everything is perfectly balanced and free. By the way, Barnet is the best Russian film director ever, far away from the auto-proclaimed Russian geniuses like [Sergei] Eisenstein, [Andrei] Tarkovsky, and [Alexander] Sokurov, whose movies all suffer from a severe grandiloquence and solemnity disease.

In these different aspects, those Russian movies are more like the early ’30s American movies, when the exuberance of the filmmakers was not restricted by the Hays Code, the strict separation of genres, all those narrative and ethical codes. Just think of a typical ’30s masterpiece like Sailor’s Luck (1933) by Walsh. My movie, with some exceptions, is much more Russian than American.

SFBG What do you want those who see La France to come away with?

SB Ninety-six tears.

LA FRANCE May 2, 4:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 4, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; May 6, 6:45 p.m., Clay

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide