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'Strayed' puts romantic gloss on suffering during WWII

In "Strayed,'' Emmanuelle Beart plays Odile Chambert, a widow and mother of two, who, along with thousands of other Parisians, flees the city at the dawn of the German occupation. The year is 1940, and the mood is only slightly hopeless, but that's because the director is Andre Techine, who never met a rose he couldn't stop and smell. Hardship and suffering don't drive this movie so much as a romantic's gloss on the two.

Odile drives alongside her tired and displaced compatriots on a long country road, and at the moment we first see her, she's using the rearview mirror to pretty herself. When a stranger, with his head wrapped and bloodied, races up to her car and begs for a ride, she accelerates, explaining to her confused 13-year-old son, Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), that it's every man for himself. Beart delivers the line without haughtiness or even conviction. It's an imperative declaration, like "Employees must wash hands before returning to work.''

Yet once a bomber passes overhead and opens fire, killing pedestrians and destroying the Chamberts' precious car, Odile and her children are forced to rely on the wiles of Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel). He's the impossibly attractive, possibly narcoleptic - not to mention heavily armed - antelope of a boy who pulls the Chamberts to safety. And no matter what the depth of his voice and the breadth of his survival skills indicate, he's 17. Surely you know where this is headed - to an abandoned chateau where he can hide with the Chamberts, eat rabbit, and share cigarettes with Odile - and there's nothing Techine can do to stop it.

If you've seen ``Ma Saison Preferee,'' ``Alice et Martin,'' or his masterpiece ``Wild Reeds,'' you might know that Techine has a way of forecasting lust without lessening your anticipation of it. When Odile embarks on turning that orphaned house into a home, she doesn't go maternal for Yvan, who proves himself the man of the place. This is fine for Philippe, who's developed a quiet but mighty crush on him. In fact, he's the only member of the family whose interest in Yvan has any real psychology behind it: Maybe Yvan is like Philippe's dead father. Little Cathy Chambert (Clemence Meyer) also catches Yvan fever, going so far as to climb into his bed. But the boy has eyes only for Odile. Will she succumb? Well, is the sky blue?

Beart's reputation precedes her. Techine saves her ritual disrobing for a moment when the movie is about to burst with desire. In a unique French tradition, Odile and Yvan's encounter is both absurd and erotic. You're appalled (for heaven's sake, there's a war on), yet piqued with envy (Ulliel and Beart are lucky to have each other).

Adapted from a Gilles Perrault novel, ``Strayed'' has a facile take on the war and its fallout, but rarely is it simpleminded about emotional hang-ups. In ``Wild Reeds,'' Techine considered political conflict, lust, and youth with dizzying sophistication. This new movie is poised, expertly, among the inane, the pastoral, and the inanely pastoral. The babbling brooks, nonstop sunshine, and coitus al fresco chafe against the arsenal of pistols and grenades. Techine tries to bring this all crashing back to earth with his frowning finale and a wrinkle concerning Yvan's disappearance, but it's last-ditch. Besides, boys always seem to pull a version of Yvan's stunt in Techine films. But the stint at the chateau is pure Techine, too. It's not a respite from the ugliness outside. The ugliness, when it appears, is a respite from the scenery.

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