A Transforming Experience in the Magic Forest; Andre Techine’s “Strayed”
by Erica Abeel
Don’t be put off by the title “Strayed” (from “Les Egares,” better rendered as “The Lost Ones”). After two lesser efforts, auteur Andre Techine is back in top form — though it should be said that even lesser Techine is still ravishing. “Strayed” is a mesmerizing film about radical dislocation — in this case occasioned by WWII — as a path towards an ecstatic, transforming experience. Opening shivery perspectives on mysteries that lie beyond the camera’s field of vision, “Strayed” is filmmaking as magic conjuring act. You’ll want to see it more than once.
Despite his 25-year career and thirteen films, Techine, who started as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, has gained limited visibility in the States. But the art-house happy few have long admired his lyrical explorations of the psychic and sexual turmoil of young adults (“Wild Reeds,” with its fluid boundaries between homo and heterosexual), and depictions of fraught family relations (“Ma Saison Preferee” with Catherine Deneuve in a revelatory turn.) Set in a rarefied zone of remembrance, his films record the subtlest nuances of image and character in a tight, restrained style that uncorks big emotional payoffs. Techine’s “provincial” films offer sumptuous scenes of sunstruck fields and water in the Southern French countryside, where he was born.
Adapted from the French novel “The Boy with Grey Eyes,” “Strayed” is also set in southern France, yet stakes out new territory for the filmmaker. While Techine usually braids several intersecting stories, “Strayed,” a compressed 90 minutes, traces a single linear tale with ruthless economy, every word, gesture, and image mined with meaning. We’re in 1940 during the exodus from Nazi-occupied Paris for the South (same time frame as Jean-Paul Rappeneau‘s “Bon Voyage”) — yet Techine is less interested in history as such than using a wartime crisis as a portal to his personal universe.
The film’s elusive elegaiac tone is announced from the outset with b/w archival footage of bombed buildings crumbling in dead silence, intermixed with the opening titles. (Black-and-white images reappear at intervals to re-jigger the historical frame in a story that seems to unscroll outside of time.) A long traveling shot scans a slow-moving line of exhausted refugees, finally closing in on the exquisite neurasthenic features of Emmanuelle Béart as Odile, a recently widowed schoolteacher fleeing Paris with her two children, Philippe (13) and Cathy (7). Suddenly German Stukas terrifyingly strafe the queue, underlying the sheer chance of who lives and who dies in war.
Their car in flames, Odile and her children flee into the amber wheatfields bordering the road, aided by a strapping adolescent in beret, who emerges from nowhere. He turns out to be Ivan, as he names himself, a half-feral delinquent who helps them survive a night in the woods. Finding an abandoned house, Ivan breaks in with suspicious ease, cutting phone wires and hiding the radio. Empty of its former owner (a Jewish musician), the house becomes a desert island paradise and the setting for a makeshift family, with Odile cleaning and cooking, and Yvan providing food by hunting and raiding neighboring farms. Eventually, two soldiers arrive, resetting the clocks and signaling a return to responsibility, bringing the idyll to a crashing end.
Techine is drawing here on well-worn themes: the island paradise; the attraction of opposites — mother and good bourgeoise meets criminal wild child; and the older woman/younger man affair. Yet what layered variations Techine rings on the familiar tropes. Philippe, Odile, and Yvan form a triangle, vibrating with bottled impulses. Adolescent Philippe is way too attached to mom, keyed into her least emotion, almost a surrogate husband. He looks to the charismatic Yvan as model, brother, friend — even father (Yvan provides food for the “family.”) And lover: he undresses him when Yvan falls sick.
So Philippe is competing with his mother for Yvan, clearly sensing her burgeoning attraction beneath her stern disapproval (she’s confiscated Yvan’s stolen gun and grenades.) And he’s competing with Yvan for his mother. As for Odile, Yvan is both object of desire, and, as she later tells the soldier who penetrates their hermetic world, her older son. Techine has woven a cat’s cradle of Oedipal and homoerotic desires.
Little Cathy is left outside the adult forbidden games, but composes her own running narrative that plays in voiceover as counterpoint, almost as if all these vivid events live on only in her memory. In her naive way, she, too, is magnetized by Yvan (mimicking the adults), but she alone can baldly express what they repress. In one scene she comes to Yvan’s bedroom in the morning and asks him if she can sleep with him. Yvan’s dismissal of this child of the bourgeoisie is both comic and touching — for what it reveals about his own harsh background.
At the center of course is the idyll of Yvan/Odile, which feels inevitable, though not tediously predictable. She attempts to teach the illiterate Yvan to read; his words “You’ll teach me,” are echoed erotically, poignantly (because without future) in a later rapturous love scene. As in his previous films, Techine quietly navigates the action toward wrenching moments that drive right into the heart. In “Wild Reeds” it’s when young Francois, Techine’s alter-ego, asks the shoestore owner what it’s like to live as a gay man. In “Strayed” it’s when Yvan abruptly announces to Odile in the kitchen that he wants to be her husband; or when he flips on a lighter in the middle of lovemaking because he’s never seen a naked woman. (Their manner of coming together in love brims with Oedipal overtones.) A shot of them afterwards, sitting in orange half light and smiling, lingers indelibly.
“Strayed” packs an extra resonance, perhaps, because it taps into myth and medieval folklore. In tales of courtly love from the Middle Ages, the lovers must first, as in this film, enter the magic forest. The wheat fields form the frontier. To attain the garden of love, they must cross a river — and Techine’s quartet makes an arduous trip over a stream to reach the enchanted house. A scene of Yvan splashing wildly about in an outdoor lavoir is like a pagan baptism.
The film also exemplifies some ideal harmony between director’s vision, music, and image. Philippe Sarde, the romantic French composer, aided by accordion, woodwinds, and Stephane Grappelli‘s violin, adds a haunting melancholy. In Agnes Godard, long associated with Claire Denis, Techine has found the perfect cinematographer to celebrate the glancing light and colors of the French countryside — not quite realistically, but somehow in the burnished hues of elegaiac memory.
Beart is always superb, but when she stops doing “La Beart” — as at moments in this film — she’s sublime. The criminally attractive Gaspard Ulliel, new star of French cinema, carries the show, endowing the mercurcial, half-wild Yvan with an androgynous animal quality. Ulliel has a fascinating hollow in his cheek, like a high dimple, which adds to Yvan’s vulnerability. Barely 20, the actor instinctively conveys the essential enigma of a character who has appeared from nowhere, carries among his loot items from World War I, and seems able to control his destiny.
In this mystical, sensual film about a lost paradise, Techine has transported the original novel to a realm unreachable by print. Some critics will mistake a lack of sprawl for “small.” They will be wrong.