During the First World War, Camille Robin receives a letter from her spouse, a soldier, telling her to stop writing him, accept his inevitable death, and get on with her life. Poor fool! He is her life. Camille cuts her hair, dresses like a boy and, setting forth to the front to find her François, attaches herself incognito to the 80th Infantry Regiment, 12th Company, led by Lieutenant Paulhan.
This is not a literalist film, and some have gone so far as to call it—descriptively, not derisively—a fairy tale. Much of it unfolds at night; natural darkness renders these passages (although the film is in color) richly black and white—or, rather, charcoal and gray. The absence of background music, coupled with this visual character, creates a strange, quiet, soft, ghostly otherworldliness.
On several occasions this quiet is broken when the men produce musical instruments seemingly out of nowhere and start singing, the melody from about a half-century later. These moments of their being unmindful of war ironically and poignantly underscore the danger they are in and the peace and freedom they yearn for.
Camille’s identity, including her gender, eventually comes to light. Referring to François, she explains, “The war has come between us.” Paulhan tells his men that nothing has changed, that Camille will continue her quest among them.
Written by Axelle Ropert, finely directed by Serge Bozon, and hauntingly photographed by Céline Bozon, the director’s sister, La France won the Jean Vigo Prize as best film. Deeply affecting, it does not focus on the horrors of war; there is little violence in this film. Rather, it is attuned to the peace for which human souls ache; like Wilfred Owen’s poetry from the same war, its subject is “the pity of War.”
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