“I’ve seen Objective Burma! only once (like all the movies I know) years ago, so I’ve sometimes got the feeling that I almost dreamed it and finally woke up by directing La France.” That’s how French critic/director Serge Bozon describes the influence of Raoul Walsh‘s haunting, consummate WWII film on his own 2007 WWI musical. In the peculiarly French tradition of critic-as-auteur, Bozon created a film, made of equal parts precisions and dreams, that illuminates the grammar of the war film genre. It maps a terrain somewhere between the hopeless wandering of a Walsh and the peculiar non-sequitur banter of a Fuller. Bozon explores the rules of this genre’s game in the same way that Godard and Rivette had done in previous decades for the musical, the noir, the pirate film.
La France is the story of Camille (Sylvie Testud), a woman-dressed-as-a-man who, in her search for her soldier husband who’s forsaken her, joins a wandering army troop (of troubadours). Their elegant leader is a coy and embarrassed lieutenant (Pascal Greggory), who seems both burdened by and immune to the shared hopelessness of his group. The apparent narrative structure is the journey of these lost soldiers and their interloper to a mythic Holland.
I dreamt of England
I must continue my journey now.
Would he come to me?
So go the lyrics to “L’Angelterre”, the first of four musical interludes that the troupe performs periodically, seemingly from nowhere, on homemade string instruments that are unwrapped with a fetishized sense of ceremony. With off-key voices in harmony, they sing from the point of view of a blind girl wandering Europe:
I left at seventeen for Italy
If I needed him
Would he come to me?
At first, Camille is as shocked by these songs as we are. Spotlit at night with an effect Bozon describes as the “‘aquarium feeling’ you sometimes have in the best B movies,” Camille regards this unexpected jingle like a child discovering a blitz of gifts on a pre-dawn Christmas illuminated only by the tree lights. She later becomes acclimated to this group expression of emotional shifts.
A German who’s hard of hearing,
The idiot doesn’t know France
I told him, “It doesn’t matter
“As long as you don’t tell anyone.”
He’s hard of hearing, I’ll lead him
And he’ll tell me what he sees
Who am I to judge him
My eyes are dull, my steps are slow
Sometimes, his eyes try to express things for me
If I needed him
Finally culminating in an almost direct copy of the Brit pop-sike song that the film has been building towards (and that will play under the starlit end credits), this last plaintive riff of a pop song is performed in a sudden shift in landscape, just before Camille has finally reached her goal, her husband.
There’s a place where I’ll tell you my secrets
It’s my bedroom so come close to me
I love the way you dress
I’d like France to be invaded by Poland
I feel pleasant vibrations
Close my eyes
These soldiers never see battle in this film, but in this final scene finally sing of war, of a desire to be invaded (but from a feminine perspective). La France is a love story without love, and a war film without war, a film of ciphers searching. When Camille meets her husband, she loses her search. While the songs seemed like whimsical fillers in this story of Camille’s tenacity in love, desire proves itself to have a false bottom, having no aim but desire. It’s the longing in the songs that describe the real story arc. The war adventure is, like all narratives, simply a story to explain what cannot be communicated directly.
Miriam Bale is a New York-based writer and film curator.
Watch La France on Fandor.