SFIFF: On tour

Mod auteur Serge Bozon makes the war go pop in La France
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kimberly@sfbg.com

SFIFF His last letter read, "Forget me" and "I'm never coming back." But instead of crying, waiting, hoping he'll return, or pleading, "Please, Mr. Postman, look and see, if there's a letter, a letter for me," she decides she will follow him, wherever he may go, because maybe, just maybe, one fine day, they'll meet once more, and he'll want the love he threw away before.

What follows is the sublime La France (2007), a holy union of war movie and love story, consecrated in the same chapel of pop that houses tearful penitent Brian Wilson, radiant nun Anna Karina, and verse-scribbling choir boy Jacques Brel — and stage-set with the mist-swathed romanticism of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

After our heroine and "Dear Jeanne" letter recipient Camille (Sylvie Testud) dons the boyish garb of a wartime Viola to unearth news of her soldier husband, she stumbles on a mysterious military troop slumbering uneasily in the woods. Camille wants to eat like them, march like them, and become one of them, with the sacrificial passion of a lover desperate to wear the garments and walk in the footsteps of her pined-for mate. But in the fall of 1917, all is not-so-quiet far from the Western front as director Serge Bozon's band of brothers — many played by the actor-auteur's fellow French film critics — pick up impromptu instruments fashioned from canteens and pots to play the sweetest yet strikingly barbed lovelorn tunes. What better way to meet doom while their country takes some of the heaviest casualties of World War I? What better way to mend a broken heart?

La France is "a war movie but almost in the absence of war and a love movie almost in the absence of love," as Bozon explains via e-mail while attending a Buenos Aires film festival. It turns gracefully on "a quest — just like the war, because we are never in the battlefields. So the war is more a horizon — something outside, always close but almost never reached.

"The unifying impulse is this magnetization, by definition from outside," he continues. "I think here the master of magnetization is Jacques Tourneur, the Henry James of cinema: how to drive la mise en scène by the absence of something at the (double) center of the story."

Balancing the visually sumptuous La France (lensed by the director's sister Céline) on what he describes as the edge and arrogance of English pop-sike and the narcotic etherealness of California sunshine pop, Bozon has made one of the most unique films in the festival. No joke. He sports only two shortish works — the 84-minute L'Amitie (1998) and the 59-minute Mods (2002) — beneath the belt of his modish slacks: La France is his first feature. It's also inadvertently launched something of a burgeoning DJ career for the music-obsessed director, who promises to draw from his healthy garage rock and Northern soul singles collection for at least one dance-party during the fest.

SFBG Why did you title the film La France? Does the soldiers' plight say something about your country in general?

SERGE BOZON To put it in the words of Michel Delahaye, one of my favorite film critics from the '60s (in Cahiers du Cinéma) who wrote a paper about La France, I've tried to tell the story of those men who "got lost in the shadow of victory."

I wanted to deal with desertion, not to tell the story of the deserters who were caught by the French army, not to tell the story of the deserters who managed to reach their goal, but to tell the story of the deserters "in between," because they are the only ones who have left no trace (no trace in France, because they managed to escape France, and no trace in any other country, because they never attained their destination).

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