Andr Techin's mesmerizing new film opens with a haunting musical refrain and black-and-white newsreel footage of World War II. In one sequence, a fallen horse is trampled by horses behind it; in another, soldiers march sullenly by; in a third, people flee the approaching German invasion of Paris. Then, switching to color, a period automobile is stuck in a line of traffic on a country road, with a strikingly beautiful, smartly dressed woman at the wheel, her teenage son beside her, and a little girl sucking her thumb asleep in the back seat. Strayed continues to alternate between actual footage and this recreation of the Parisian exodus of June 1940, until German Stukas soar overhead, randomly bombing the exposed civilians. At this point, the family escapes into the woods, helped by a young man who calls himself Yvan. There are no more newsreels, but the accompanying musical refrain recurs from time to time, eliciting an anxious response in the viewer.
As in the recently released Bon Voyage, Strayed captures the panic and dislocation experienced by Parisians during the German invasion. But it quickly becomes a film about four characters finding their balance in an alternate universe. The war has taken the husband of Odile (Emmanuelle Bart), and forced her into the wilderness with her two children. Thirteen-year-old Philippe (Grgoire Leprince-Ringuet) senses that his mother is not equipped for this new world, and seeks the help of an enigmatic 17-year-old drifter, who clearly possesses survival skills. Despite her initial mistrust, Odile follows Yvan to an abandoned chateau, and warily sets up house with him and the children.
Tchin (Wild Reeds) is a master, who takes his time setting up the story (based on a novel by Gilles Perrault). He manages that supreme paradox: leisurely suspense. Since the film is set in wartime, there is always the underlying fear of violence and death, and when war is not the danger, there is the danger and unpredictability of human behavior. Yvan is the central mystery: Who is he? What does he want? Can he be trusted? As the film slowly reveals Yvan's character, it explores what it means to be truly adult, civilized and alive.
As played by Gaspard Ulliel, Yvan is a wiry, feral boy-man, with closely cropped hair and guarded eyes. He effortlessly scales the exterior of the chateau to break into a third-story window so the family can enter; steals a chicken for dinner; catches fish, and robs the war dead for weapons and trinkets. When he gets tired, his eyes glaze over and he literally collapses on the spot. Odile soon realizes Yvan is illiterate, and warms to him as she tries to teach him to read and write. He tells her he is an orphan, but refuses to discuss his background.
Bart, with her dark, arched eyebrows, exquisite bone structure and soulful eyes, is a Garboesque screen presence. She conveys Odile's desperate attempt to appear in control, even as she is dissolving within. In one memorable scene, she blankly smokes a cigarette in the bathtub, the water distorting her proportions, as she slowly sinks her head under the surface. She is the adult of the group, but under these new circumstances she is often more lost than Yvan or Philippe. As Yvan tells her, after she loses patience with her son's disobedience, "He knows you have to act sometimes instead of asking questions."
George W. Bush might have said the same thing. Though it is set 64 years ago, the questions Strayed raises are particularly pertinent to these times. What does it mean to be civilized when great civilizations engage in the barbarity of war? What is the price of survival? Odile herself says, in wartime each man for himself, but in this story, she and her children would be dead if not for Yvan. Her effect on Yvan raises other, disturbing questions, which in deference to the plot will not be discussed here. Among Tchin's achievements is that the film works on many levels: as both an allegory, and as a psychologically acute study of individuals in extreme circumstances. It is not easily forgotten.
-Wendy R. Weinstein