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French films go to war

Time and again, Gallic directors turn to the Occupation as a setting for stories driven by strong women.

April 04, 2004|Emanuel Levy | Special to The Times

In "Bon Voyage," Jean-Paul Rappeneau's new film that opened here last weekend, French film star Isabelle Adjani plays a movie diva caught in a swirl of personal and political intrigues at the start of the Second World War. Her equally gorgeous, younger costar Virginie Ledoyen is cast as a student who becomes involved in a typically French romantic triangle.

Adjani and Ledoyen join a long line of French actresses, such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Miou Miou, Emmanuelle Beart, Juliette Binoche and Sandrine Bonnaire, who have appeared in major movies about women's survival during the Nazi Occupation. World War II is one of the most traumatic events in French history, a defining era that has continued to haunt filmmakers and audiences for more than half a century.

Among the high-profile films of this uniquely French subgenre include Francois Truffaut's celebrated "The Last Metro" (1980), Diane Kurys' "Entre Nous" (1983) and Regis Wargnier's "Indochine" (1992) and "East-West" (1999), all of which found greater success with French than American audiences.

While based on other source materials -- usually bestselling novels -- these films are personal enough to allow their directors to explore a pivotal period in their own youth, an era of turmoil that divided France along political and artistic lines. Rappeneau ("Cyrano de Bergerac," with Gerard Depardieu) is the same age as Truffaut and other New Wave leaders; he was 8 when France was invaded.

A distaff sentimentality

One of the glories of French cinema, past and present, is its acceptance of women's cultural centrality. This explains the large number of intriguing films, mostly by men, about female protagonists and female concerns, a category that embraces the oeuvre of Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Andre Techine, Patrice Leconte, and most recently Francois Ozon ("Swimming Pool"). The French cinema's distinctly female orientation draws on a large reservoir of charismatic actresses who hold an entire film on their shoulders. What's striking about these films is the trajectory of the heroines: They begin as privileged protagonists only to become humble and more ordinary as a result of the physical ordeal of survival.

Intimacy rather than scope has always been the strength of much French cinema, whose directors favor taut characterization and dramatic conflict over action. Grounded in realism, there is an attentiveness to the mundane aspects of life, those seemingly marginal and fleeting moments that help directors like Rappeneau express hidden truths of psychological life.

If the French cinematic sensibility is distinctly feminine, the American is decidedly masculine, and not just in action-adventures. The American war film may be the most male-oriented genre. There have been few stories about women -- or families -- surviving wars. "Cold Mountain," the recent romantic Civil War drama, is truly the exception, a throwback to the days of Scarlett O'Hara and "Gone With the Wind." One would have to go back to 1978's "The Deer Hunter" and "Coming Home" to trace major Hollywood movies about women in war (in this case Vietnam): Meryl Streep in the former and Jane Fonda in the latter.While most of the new films are personal, they also exhibit a long-cherished filmmaking mode -- the well-crafted, well-acted story with high production values. Pejoratively known as "le cinema de papa," it's the type of film against which the New Wave rebelled in 1959. However, with the exceptions of Godard and Jacques Rivette, most of the New Wave leaders, including Truffaut, Rohmer and Alain Resnais, have resorted later in their careers to more traditional storytelling. The Truffaut of "The 400 Blows" or "Shoot the Piano Player" is not the Truffaut of "The Last Metro."

A time-honored style

Some of the new French films are old-fashioned, adhering to classic storytelling with their linear structure and clear resolution. Take "Strayed," the latest erotic melodrama from Techine, one of France's most prominent filmmakers. Based on a 1983 novel by Gilles Perrault, "Strayed" explores the chaotic summer of 1940, when France was invaded by Germany. Emmanuelle Beart plays Odile, a young widow who flees Paris with her children for a safer life in the South. When Germans bomb the roads, the family runs into the woods, where they encounter Yvan, a fiercely independent and reckless teenager. The fugitives stumble into a large deserted house, where they engage in an idyllic existence away from the war, with Odile falling for the hoodlum.

With few exceptions (Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element"), the French cinema is not paralyzed by Hollywood's blockbuster mentality. The Oscars seem to favor these humanistic sagas, as manifest in their overrepresentation in the foreign-language category. Last year, the foreign-language Oscar went to a German film, "Nowhere in Africa," Caroline Fink's survival tale about a Jewish family that flees Nazi Germany in 1938 and lands in rural Africa.

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