In 1964, Jacques Demy astounded critics and audiences with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a musical in which every word of dialogue is sung. But within this audacious exercise lies an achingly antiwar film, its hero shipped off to fight in Algeria. Serge Bozon’s singular, extraordinary La France, cowritten with Axelle Ropert, is the inverse of Demy’s classic: a drama about the horrors, loneliness and camaraderie of World War I that intermittently (four times, to be specific) blooms into a delirious musical.
Liberty, equality, fraternity: Gaul’s motto is dissected throughout Bozon’s movie, which laments the folly of nationalism while reveling in the glories of anachronism. Joining the simple, straightforward title of the film are the songs themselves: “England,” “Italy,” “Germany” and “Poland,” all of which begin with the line “I, the blind girl…,” sung by weary soldiers who come to life with their handcrafted string instruments, made from cans and other everyday detritus. Gender discordance runs throughout, as Sylvie Testud’s Camille, in search of her husband, cuts her tresses and dons suspenders to join ten combatants led by Pascal Greggory. Both Testud and Greggory have repeatedly proved themselves two of the finest actors working today, but I can’t recall despair ever portrayed so movingly and yet with such economy. The look of pure enchantment on Camille’s face the first time her comrades break into song—creamy, harmonious nuggets that sound like mid-’60s pop manna—may reflect your own. And Bozon ends his war story with a scene as romantic and otherworldly as Demy might have dreamed.