An intimate drama set against a tumultuous historical backdrop, this latest feature by French director André Téchiné (Wild Reeds, Alice et Martin) is a psychological mood piece set during World War II that maintains a steady, low-key tension without bubbling into melodrama. It begins with the mass exodus from Paris that occurred when the Germans were about to enter the city with a long pan over a crowded road of refugees establishing a general feeling of lethargic chaos. When a German plane starts bombing the refugees, a widow and her two children, urged on by a young stranger, flee into the French countryside.
The widow, Odile (Emmanuelle Béart), is wary of the 17-year-old stranger who calls himself Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), but is also impressed by his survival skills as he catches food for her and her children and finds them shelter in an abandoned house near a small village. We know there’s something fishy about Yvan since the first thing he does in the house, unbeknownst to Odile, is cut the phone line. That plus his shaved head, quirky behavior (which includes attacks of narcolepsy) and reticence to tell Odile anything about himself suggest someone who might have escaped from a hospital or perhaps some more sinister institution. He also keeps a small cache of items he’s taken from dead soldiers, including a gun.
The movie lingers over the evolving relationship between Yvan and this family, a family he very much wants to be a part of even though his social skills are such that he’s continually alienating everyone, including Odile’s 13-year-old son who initially looks up to him as a sort of older brother. Tensions heighten when the uneasy idyll is interrupted by the arrival of two French soldiers whom Yvan immediately sees as menacing outsiders — not a good attitude for a misfit with a gun. But the story doesn’t go quite where you think it’s going to and, as with most of Téchiné’s films, subtle and complex relationships take precedence over explosive events.
You may wish there was a bit more panache to it, but as it is so well done, it seems churlish to complain.
In French with English subtitles. Opening at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.