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By Mark Peranson
Let me begin by ruining the ending of La France. After masquerading as a 17-year-old boy and glomming onto a ramshackle regiment of French WWI soldiers, Sylvie Testud’s Camille reunites with her soldier husband, who has, at the film’s onset, written home to tell her to write him off. As Camille and her adopted troop lie, exhausted, on a seemingly endless expanse of white sand somewhere far away from home, her husband appears, a distant speck trudging slowly across the frame (as it is Guillaume Depardieu, staggering on his one good leg). As the soldiers, I guess I should add, are singing one of the film’s original pop songs on homemade, antiquated instruments, live to (digital) tape. Of course there’s more to La France than plot, but anyone who’s keyed into the film’s unlikely relationship with pop, who has heard the repeating, plaintive refrain, “Would he come to me…”, could have predicted this development arriving from—literally—a country away.
Despite being completely overdetermined and horribly clichéd, this scene still has a power—it’s moving, and continues to move me each time I see it. It’s a pop climax whose strange, explosive power derives not only from the song and the setting, but the set-up—the blinding whiteness of the Belgian sand contrasting to the numerous nighttime scenes Bozon has previously staged in a rural France. That it succeeds is more than just a sign that Serge Bozon and his actors (many of whom are film critics, Bozon having himself written for La lettre du cinéma) have created touching portrayals of life during wartime; it also results from a non-schematic yet well-planned mise en scène, sharp editing, and, yes, those imperfectly warbled, multi-layered harmony pop songs (written by Fugu and Benjamin Esdraffo, both appearing in the film as soldiers), influenced in equal parts by Beach Boys-variety sunshine pop and British “pop-sike.”
It’s a move that, to less-than-cinephilic eyes, might seem sui generis, and it well may be in a French context. But La France contains the seeds not only of those troop war movies by Samuel Fuller, John Ford, and Raoul Walsh, but also their commie counterparts such as Boris Barnet (as elucidated below by the critic-turned-director). La France isn’t a pop movie per se, but a unique film where pop flits alongside a number of other discordant termites that likewise bore holes into the soul—the driven, love-blind Camille, who has testified to the everlasting love that on her wedding day made her physically ill, is a character in a sunshine pop song, and her Alice-like journey, which teeters towards, but never quite spins off into, a psychedelic Wonderland, belongs to Bozon’s beloved pop-sike (an avid record collector and more-than-decent DJ, it should surprise none that the director’s previous feature is titled Mods). The particular referent here is John Pantry, who is perhaps most famed as an engineer for the first two Bee Gees albums, but, according to Bozon, an unsung genius—his demo for “Gospel Lane” provides the recurrent melody for many of La France’s songs, and plays over the closing credits (the film’s soundtrack, released in France, places a number of Pantry’s best compositions alongside the film’s original tracks).
A song about lost love, poverty, and loneliness accompanied by jaunty music (the kind of juxtaposition the Beatles made into a staple), “Gospel Lane” is an apt capper to what is, in essence, a delightful drag. Pop energizes this mournful film, releasing it from the torpor of the troops-at-war subgenre. The dread-tinged denouement for Camille and her husband, who upon reuniting engage in something far short of connubial bliss, hearkens back to the flip side of La France (triple meaning intended), the decidedly non-romantic one that gives the film its structure: after all, there are only four original songs, and the first appears 24 minutes in, immediately followed by a scene which finds the troop encountering a small plot of cross-marked graves. Indeed, more screen time is given to the soldiers, who, we find out, are deserters, led by their lieutenant (an amazing Pascal Greggory, who does more acting with his eyes here than most do with their bodies) on a long, dull march to a height, both physical and mental, they’ll never reach.
In explicit contrast—yet coexisting—with Camille’s quest is the soldiers’ journey. Far from living in a state of elation, these battle-scarred survivors are held down by the gravity that hurls Camille to the earth in the film’s first scene: the soldiers can only temporarily exist above ground, they can only hide in a tree for so long, before they jump down; they sing songs about Atlantis, the submerged continent; they collapse, without warning, into a deep dark hole; when they find shelter in an attic of a seemingly friendly house, they are met with the shock of sudden, brutal violence. The head-in-the-clouds Camille—who determinedly scales a watch tower to kill a German soldier, enabling the troops’ border crossing—comes to embody their (impossible) collective hope for many things, including the domesticity they’ve left behind. When she’s gone, so are they—because Bozon’s point is more than just that love elates, but that gravity sure as hell weighs you down. La France, however, has wings.
Cinema Scope: You’re a critic, and you’ve made a film “in the spirit” of a certain type of war film (e.g., Fuller, Walsh). Films that make reference to other films are historically one of two types: a cinephilic “movie movie” that explodes with exuberance for filmmaking, or a film that exists as a work of criticism itself. Which one of these is La France?
Serge Bozon: Neither, I hope. For me, I choose what films to cite just like the way I choose my clothes. It comes from something so deep inside of me that it becomes frivolous: as personal as what anybody decides to put on his skin if he wants to go out—I’m not a nudist. And I do choose carefully what I wear.
Scope: Why make a period piece, a WWI film now? In referring to films like Objective, Burma! (1945) and Merrill’s Marauders (1962), are you enacting a kind of nostalgia? Or are you arguing that filmmaking, at a certain point, just stops—say, at the point of the Nouvelle Vague?
Bozon: No, no, no. No nostalgia. Tarantino, Gray, etc., are nostalgic, but I’m not. Filmmaking has never stopped, and I had arguments about it with Serge Daney and his horrible idea of “the end of cinema” when I was barely 20. I still think he was wrong. (I do love a lot of French directors who appeared after the Nouvelle Vague: Paul Vecchiali, Jean-Claude Biette, Jean-Claude Guiguet, Marie-Claude Treilhou, Pierre Zucca, Adolfo Arrieta, Patricia Mazuy, Alain Guiraudie, Pierre Léon, Jean Eustache, Quentin Dupieux, Louis Skorecki, etc.) I’ve never tried to imitate those old movies, and my soldiers aren’t shot like Fuller and Walsh shot them. The same goes for the violence, the dialogue, etc. In the end, La France is far from these movies. For your first question, I think that making a war movie (in France) has nothing to do with making (in France) a western, a pirate movie, a musical, etc. This is the only classical American genre still alive in France, where many war movies are made each year (and on big budgets, La France being the exception). So there is no mannerism here. The menace of war is unceasing, or even eternal.
To be more precise, La France is more a movie about the menace of war than about the war itself, so I could have set it in the present. But I wanted, from a historical point of view, to deal with the question of desertion, which was huge in France in 1917. I filmed only the menace, and this menace is only our present, and the desertion is still, in our present history, “needles and pins,” to quote the Ramones covering The Searchers.
Scope: You’ve also mentioned Boris Barnet as an influence, who’s probably less well known than the American filmmakers. Are there any other filmmakers I’m missing?
Bozon: Yes, I think so, because of your neo-Cold War prejudices!
Scope: No, because they aren’t as widely screened here as in France!
Bozon: The war movies of Fuller, Ford, Walsh, or Tourneur (Days of Glory, 1944) are just as important to me as the sublime Russian war movies from the ‘40s, for example Tales of the Siberian Land (1947, Ivan Pyriev), Two Soldiers (1943, Leonid Loukov), Mashenka (1942, Yuli Raizman), Soldiers of the Swamp (1939, Aleksandr Matcheret)… In all of these movies, you have songs in crucial moments and the mood isn’t always hard-boiled: there is childish tenderness and emotive exuberance amongst the soldiers, because the relation of men to virility is more free and naïve. You also have beautiful female characters: Mashenka, for example, is a war movie about a woman, also with a non-American way of filming the landscapes with a romantic touch (in the classical musical sense, like Berlioz). In Pyriev’s masterpiece, there is no sense of economy as in the classical American way of directing—the mise en scène is a little pompous, in fact, ingenious, but in a non-academic way (and very pictorial, too). And there are many changes of registers and moods, much more so than in the American movies. Barnet’s A Good Lad (1943) is (in one hour!) a musical (with opera singing during the war scenes), a comedy, a love story, and a war movie—and everything is perfectly balanced and free.
In these aspects, those Russian movies are more like the early ‘30s American movies, when the exuberance of filmmakers wasn’t restricted by the Hays Code, nor the strict separation of genres and all those narrative and ethical codes. Just think of a typical ‘30s masterpiece like Walsh’s Sailor’s Luck (1933). By doing this, I also escape the “conceptual blind alley” of a strictly MacMahonistic background.
Scope: Why the title La France? It’s almost a provocation. Does the film say anything about France today?
Bozon: Yes, but it’s not the task of the director to explain it. It’s the job of the critics, and I must say that this job was done well here. To put it in the words of Michel Delahaye, one of my favourite critics from the ‘60s (in the Cahiers), who wrote about La France, I’ve tried to tell the story of those men who “got lost in the shadow of victory.” They managed to escape, but disappeared “en voyage.” Just listen to “Going All the Way” by The Squires or “On Tour” by The Chancellors (two garage diamonds found by Tim Warren of Crypt Records) and you’ll understand the political meaning of my movie. I’ll try and explain: “On Tour” is a song (as you could guess) about the life of a group on tour. But, like all the real garage bands, the Chancellors never played once outside their own town. Now think about the “tour” of my soldiers… you see? You begin by expecting some light, uplifting pop, but in the end it’s only imposture, frustration, and anger all over the place. “Anywhere out of the world,” yes, but you won’t even manage to leave your own town.
Scope: A war film and pop songs seem like unlikely partners, but both in essence deal with clichés in a way—and it’s true to reality, as soldiers did spend their long days doing things like playing songs. In your mind, is the film a work of realism? Is that why it was important to record the songs live? Was it difficult?
Bozon: Yes, it was crucial. One way of intensifying the momentum of the actor singing and thus the emotion felt by the audience is to have the sound captured live. I also wanted to get the musical adrenalin rush one feels when somebody tries for real to sing something too difficult for him in an unfriendly environment. Just like in an action scene, you will ask yourself: Will he manage to do it? This tension or adrenalin can be captured only if the sound is recorded live.
There were three challenges while recording these songs. The first concerns the music itself, which wasn’t designed to be played outdoors with acoustic instruments; it required a microphone for each vocal and instrument. Indeed, the main difference between pop (possibly French pop) and French chanson is the importance of vocal harmonies. In order to have independent levels while mixing, you need to record each instrument on its own track. But the actors were close to each other, so it was difficult to record separate tracks. The last difficulty was that the trench-made instruments were hard to play and the musicians couldn’t always hear each other. For all these reasons, the engineers had to use a Pyramix system equipped with 25 microphones, including 16 wireless.
Scope: The presence of pop songs not only changes the mood in the scenes where they are performed, but they cast a shadow over the rest of the film. Did you have the songs in mind all along? Would this film be possible without the songs?
Bozon: Yes, I had the songs in mind all along. I didn’t write the script (Axelle Ropert did), but I wrote the lyrics of the songs and chose the musical style. But it’s not a pop movie. One important thing is that I wanted to rediscover the work of John Pantry, and a lot of Pantry’s songs remained as demos and are still re-emerging today. The studio versions sound less beautiful to me. Unlike studio reworks (like “Glasshouse Green, Splinter Red,” the crowning moment of pop-sike, a song about a gardener’s suicide), listening to bare versions of these songs is a revealing experience, because one can notice that in this magnified Englishness a very pure and nervous emotion was hiding. I think this lesson can be applied to cinema: instead of looking for universality, it’s better to be faithful to what you like, emphasizing one’s own ephemeral idiosyncrasies. Then the mise en scène will retain the essence, going far beyond the happy few’s taste to reach the ardour of the anonymous crowd. For example, some of Hollywood’s biggest successes were by Howard Hawks, whose films were deeply elitist, mundane, and cheeky.
I like ambitious filmmakers, even those with encyclopaedic projects, like Eric Rohmer, following the steps of Balzac. In Mods, garage music was central; in Axelle Ropert’s short Etoile violette (2005), it was folk music; in La France, it is pop; in the Wolberg Family, Axelle ‘s next movie (written before the shooting of La France), it’s (northern) soul. It’s always that very same idea: to handle a musical genre by putting it in self-working fiction, like Craig Brewer’s beautiful Black Snake Moan did for the blues.
Placing songs in movies that aren’t musicals is risky. To take inspiration from both categories cited above and to capture it live with actors who aren’t professional singers is adventurous too, as is the 1917/1967 hybrid, and the choice of straightforward sentimentality in the lyrics—an attempt to raise the initial romantic plot, which disappears when Camille meets the troop. In the same way, the men sing love songs from a female perspective, a tradition in primitive folk music. And so on. By multiplying the risks, one can be certain of two things: getting away from academicism and, if it works, uplifting the scenes.
Scope: Speaking about uplifting, in thinking about the film I seem drawn to comparing something essential about cinema and music. Cinema, it seems to be, is something that is heavy, weighted down by its visual presence, whereas music is light, it floats above .The title, La France, appears in the air, like a cloud. To what extent did this play into your staging of the scenes? There are many scenes with the troops lying down, falling, etc.
Bozon: I love this question, because I never thought about it before in this way. You must be right: the music goes up when the story goes down, so to say. I cannot add anything because you just revealed something new to me. By the way, all the things I’m saying occurred to me after the editing, when I had to watch my completed movie over and over and so thought about it like a film critic. When Axelle was writing or when I was directing, I just tried to do what I liked, while coping with the material and financial problems.
Scope: It also strikes me that the many night scenes also work in contrast to the climax, which almost becomes a heavenly space, with the white, etc.—there do seem to be an inordinate number of scenes at night…
Bozon: The importance of the night scenes comes from the best war movie of all time: Objective, Burma! When my sister (the cinematographer) and I thought about the lighting process, we wanted, without using any special effects, a kind of secret oneiric touch far away from the usual modernistic, natural chiaroscuro. Take for example the scene in Gerry (2002) where Casey Affleck and Matt Damon speak about the ancient Greeks in front of a campfire. Everything is completely black, except the fire and the parts of their bodies lit up by the natural light. In my movie, on the contrary, you can see a lot more things in the night scenes because no part of the screen is completely dark, never, thanks to the many spotlights we used. It’s artificial, like in the ‘50s movies, but this artificiality is buried—is secret, so to speak—because it is used subtly to get a soft image, where the colours are less contrasted, the texture of the image almost a little blurred. The same goes for the relation between the dark parts of the screen and the light ones. All the boundaries are softened to get this “aquarium feeling” you sometimes have in the best B movies (Tourneur, Ulmer, Dwan… in Cat People , for example, the dramatic tension is almost always induced by this subtle “aquarium lightning”). After all, my movie deals with Atlantis, so the lights must be just like “under the sea,” soft shimmering stirrings just like invisible ripples. We used a film stock never used before to shoot a movie, Kodak 5299, which is usually used as an intermediate film in numerical post-production. So it’s a world premiere, and Kodak should have given us some money for that!
Scope: Another contrast in pop music can occur between the music and the lyrics—this comes across in “Gospel Lane,” which emphasizes that, despite Camille’s drive to find her husband, her complete confidence in true love, she is unprepared to deal with how the war has changed him.
Bozon: In “Glasshouse Green, Splinter Red” the contrast involved is much more spectacular! But you’re right, and her husband does not even recognize her before she kisses him! An underappreciated drama in war is that, when the husbands went back to their wives, they were sometimes so destroyed that the life of these wives became terrible. Sometimes it’s better to be a widow. The end of La France is not a happy one. The husband’s return was the only way to get the distance (from the troop) that could make their eventual disappearance resonate—when the husband looks at the stars, after having said the first names of three members of the troop. So something has been passed on from Camille to her husband. Is it regret, nostalgia, shame, memory, fear, trauma? One cannot say, but in the end, it’s really the (death of the) troop that matters.
Scope: Lastly, to what extent may Camille be a sunshine pop character, and her journey—which is kind of like an Alice in Wonderland—tinged with pop-sike?
Bozon: Excellent idea, but I never thought about it. I listen again to “Little Girl Lost and Found” (the fourth song on the CD soundtrack). I was more thinking about the style of journeys found in German Romanticism (Novalis, Jean Paul, Kleist, Eichendorff, Hoffmann, etc., who write all the time about Atlantis, by the way!). You know, those long nightly initiations with all these men getting lost in the woods who bump into strange chance encounters, in search of a new, more lenient homeland. And as Syd Barrett sang: “Sometimes it’s good to get lost in the woods.”