The Cannes International Film Festival announced its 2010 lineup yesterday, featuring everything from an entry by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. I found myself marking the announcement by watching La France, a deep cut from the festival's 2007 edition, which included prizewinners such as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Persepolis, and Paranoid Park. La France barely reached theaters stateside, playing for a single week at Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives in the summer of 2008, but it finally came out on DVD earlier this month from Kino International. It's just as good as any of the other, higher-profile Cannes alums, and even more of a revelation.
What exactly is La France? The question persists long after the credits have rolled. "World War I musical" is the handiest genre-hybrid tag, but the film features only four songs—all of them sounding like 1960s pop standards and sung by soldiers with travel instruments drawn from their rucksacks—and their lyrics don't have anything to do with the film's action. The war also remains off-screen.
The most striking aspect of the film, directed by first-timer Serge Bozon, who also co-wrote the film with his wife, Axelle Ropert, is that the gender roles are almost uniformly reversed. Camille (Sylvie Testud) receives a letter one day from her husband, who's fighting on the front. In it he asks her to forget him, claiming that she'll never see him again. She consults a map, cuts her hair short, straps on suspenders to hold up her baggy clothes, and she's off to find him.
After proving her mettle in a series of dramatic displays—taking a shot in the hand, jumping off a bridge—a group of soldiers led by a world-weary lieutenant (Pascal Greggory) reluctantly takes her in. They call Camille by her name but otherwise completely buy her drag performance. The soldiers, in turn, are a contemplative, skittish bunch, some of them frustrated poets, all of them hyper-melancholic. They are later revealed to be not an active regiment but a collective of deserters headed for the Dutch border. And they exclusively sing love songs with female narrators.
As the lead androgyne, Testud is a marvel. She's quickly developing into one of the world's most interesting screen actresses, making a very strong impression as well in Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner's Lourdes, which came out earlier this year in U.S. theaters. In that film she plays a paraplegic woman on a visit to the titular Catholic pilgrimage site who suddenly (miraculously?) finds that she can walk; in La France as well she gives an amazingly detailed physical performance. Particularly early on, Camille quietly fights to keep her composure, visibly—and amusingly—struggling to maintain the balance of her masculine walk.
The title La France suggests an epic miniseries of some sort, and at least part of Bozon's project involves revealing the absurdities of that sort of national-mythmaking enterprise by turning the most basic war-movie conventions inside out. Early on the troops read from a storybook about Atlantis: "'Atlantis opened her arms to them.' I don't get it. Is Atlantis a woman or a country?" Notions of a valor-shielded motherland come under good-humored siege here, and in that respect La France is quite plainly an anti-war film.
As these soldiers pass through woods, grottoes, and smoldering battlefields, their uniforms somewhere between overcast gray and powder blue, the film develops a sort of comic diorama quality. These formations of miserable recruits, as lensed by the director's sister, Celine Bozon, can be quite funny, and in moments La France almost feels like a war movie directed by Wes Anderson. In a good way. But Serge Bozon's debut film for the most part is totally unique, the kind of risk it would be nice to see a whole lot more of. One can only hope that this year's Cannes will yield a glorious experiment of La France's caliber.