By Steven G. Kellman
The German army marched into Paris in 1871 and again in 1940, but, in a kind of repetition compulsion of the historical imagination, the fall of France is reenacted again and again on screen. The moment of tumultuous mass evacuation just before the Nazis seize the capital has become the Groundhog Day of French cinema. Though I love Paris in the springtime, filmmakers love Paris in the fall. Perhaps one definitive rendition will finally liberate French audiences from the nightmare of defeat, or, more likely, the national trauma will be exorcised only when the genre is exhausted.
In Jean-Paul Rappeneau's madcap Bon Voyage, the frenetic retreat from Paris sets the stage for mayhem, valor, and farce. Less than three months after Bon Voyage withdrew from San Antonio comes a new French film that focuses on one family's experiences after the rout. Director André Téchiné sets the opening sequence of Strayed on June 10, 1940, when the roads leading out of Paris are clogged with thousands of civilians fleeing south, away from the invading German forces. Among them are the Chamberts - 13-year-old Philippe (Leprince-Ringuet), 7-year-old Cathy (Meyer), and their beautiful mother, Odile (Béart). The man of the clan is dead, killed defending the eastern borders of France. Odile drives the three surviving Chamberts in a car, but movement out of town is slow because the roads are congested with desperate pedestrians. When they finally reach open countryside, they are strafed and bombed by German fighters. Their car catches fire and, with the help of an enigmatic young man who calls himself Yvan (Ulliel), they flee on foot into the woods.
Embarrassed by a urine stain on her skirt that is a souvenir of panic, Odile, a teacher, is anxious not to lose her hold on civilized values or her authority over her two children. Philippe and Cathy are increasingly drawn to Yvan, who seems to Odile a feral force of nature. "Idiot" is the first word Odile uses to describe him, and the epithet is accurate to describe the uncouth, 17-year-old vagabond. He cannot even read the label on a wine bottle. She reluctantly accepts Yvan's advice to remain in the woods throughout the night but in the morning leads her children to the nearest village. However, it has been evacuated, and Yvan insists they will be safer away from settlements. Directing the Chamberts to an isolated chateau abandoned by its Jewish residents, he breaks in. He scavenges for rabbits, chickens, and fish to feed their tiny new community. The telephone line has been cut, the radio is missing, and the clocks do not work. For most of the film, Odile, Yvan, Philippe, and Cathy attempt to make a separate peace with one another in a universe of their own. It is both an idyll and an ordeal.
Set amid a tranquil rural landscape where the alphabet that Odile tries to teach Yvan seems as much an intrusion as the two French soldiers, Georges (Fornerod) and Robert (Labarthe), who suddenly wander by, Strayed is the story of a woman - and a country - that got lost, that abandoned her standards while trying to survive. I just do not believe that Odile would give herself to the scruffy, savage, adolescent Yvan rather than either of the two handsome, mature men who clearly crave her during their visit. Nor does evidence, abruptly brought forward, that Philippe is a talented, aspiring opera singer hit a convincing note.
"I think I've gotten off the tracks," explains Odile to Robert, echoing the meaning of the film's French title, Les Egarés, those who have lost their way. Strayed finds yet another way to make a winning film out of national defeat. •