The Big Parade
World War I French drama blossoms into a disarming romance
Director Serge Bozon's 2007 La France, only now coming out on DVD, is undoubtedly the best, most enigmatic gender-bending World War I musical you'll ever see. Impossible to classify, it's a war movie with a love story that only flowers in its beginning and closing moments.
Its use of four original songs, performed by the cast, is a good example of its oddness. Without overt anachronisms, its soundtrack ties together WWI, the psychedelic counterculture, and the present. Full of layered vocal harmonies and acoustic instrumentation, it recalls the light pop of the late '60s Beach Boys and Bee Gees. Simultaneously, it also suggests contemporary indie-rock groups such as Animal Collective and Beirut, which have been influenced by that period. All the same, it's true to the WWI era, genuinely played on homemade guitars and violins made from trash and recorded live, intricate vocals and all, with no studio overdubbing.
In the opening scene, women gaze out on a rural landscape, looking for soldiers. Camille (Sylvie Testud) feels so lonely without her husband, a soldier in the French army's 30th Regiment, that she decides to track down a platoon and find news of him. In order to join the army, she cuts off her hair and binds her breasts, disguising herself as a 17-year-old boy. Heading into the countryside, she meets up with a regiment led by a nameless lieutenant (Pascal Greggory). At first, they're very reluctant to let her tag along. When they come to a bridge, they tell her to head to a nearby village, but she jumps off the bridge and nearly drowns. Gradually, they come to accept her presence, although suspicions persist.
Camille isn't exactly transgendered. She dresses as a man for a specific goal, not because she feels that she is really male. La France, however, suggests that the chaos of wartime can break down otherwise rigid boundaries of gender and sexuality. The soundtrack plays a key role in this process. The troop of gruff mustachioed men relax by singing love songs written from a woman's perspective and starting with the phrase "I, a blind girl." As sung by men, the movie's first song, which describes a male lover's bedroom, is particularly homoerotic.
Cinematographer Céline Bozon, who is the director's sister, gives La France an atmospheric look so vivid that when it rains, you can almost feel the humidity. Much of the movie was shot at night; the daytime scenes, however, are color-coordinated to a breathtaking degree. The movie's palette is dominated by pale blues and greens, with military uniforms matching the tones of the surrounding forest and grass. Not since Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady has nature looked so uncanny or been such a strong cinematic presence. Bozon shies away from close-ups, preferring long shots taking in vast landscapes in one image.
La France feels dreamlike. For a war movie, it's relatively light on bloodshed, making the few occurrences of violence all the more startling. At the same time, it's a realistic treatment of military life, depicting it as a long stretch of boredom and endless, exhausting wandering punctuated by bursts of carnage or other kinds of unpleasantness. (At one point, many of the soldiers suddenly fall into a pit.) Ironically, Camille, who joins the troop for purely personal reasons, turns out to be a good soldier, although her bravery may stem from an impulsive streak that the lieutenant views as suicidal. The film's depiction of the army never plays like a Civil War reenactment or costume party, since the ensemble cast is remarkably convincing in their grungy uniforms and dirty faces.
Bozon's soldiers sing of the mythical land of Atlantis, celebrated by '60s singer Donovan. Their eventual destination is Holland, but rather than the actual country, this seems to represent an ideal of a life free from sorrow and violence. Meanwhile, Camille is on a parallel quest to reconnect with her husband.
Visually, La France is remarkably pretty, but it expresses a dark worldview in which individuals may find satisfaction, but the collective is doomed to have its hopes deferred endlessly. Utopia is nowhere in sight, and just going on living may be a privilege. If La France is a portrait of France itself, as its title suggests, it depicts a nation of dreamers caught in an endless quagmire, searching for a way out but unable to get very far. Holland remains close but impossible to reach.