- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

“Strayed,” a new film from the veteran French director Andre Techine, who was responsible for two striking imports of the early 1990s, “My Favorite Season” and “Wild Reeds,” definitely wanders beyond dramatic coherence and salvation while trying to capitalize on an absorbing set of circumstances.

Booked exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, the movie sets a high standard of evocation and sensibility that eventually succumbs to last-act groping.

The exposition recalls Rene Clement’s 1951 classic “Forbidden Games,” in which an exquisite little girl is orphaned as her parents join refugee throngs fleeing Paris for the countryside in response to German invasion and imminent conquest in June 1940.

There are no casualties among the basic family group in this case. Emmanuelle Beart, often rapturously beautiful despite the pretense that her character has no opportunity to look her best, stars as a young Parisian widow named Odile. She and her two precocious children, Philippe and Cathy (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet and Clemence Meyer), about 13 and 6, respectively, survive a strafing attack, depicted with terrifying immediacy.

However, their car and possessions go up in flames. A stranger attaches himself as an off-and-on companion and protector: Gaspard Ulliel as a rangy, delinquent older boy named Yvan, about 17 and resourceful in ways that prove indispensable to the family’s well-being in the immediate aftermath of their calamity. He has the hunting and scavenging skills they lack. He also is illiterate and far from trustworthy.

Odile, a schoolteacher, makes preliminary efforts to remedy Yvan’s reading and writing deficiencies after the quartet take refuge in an abandoned country estate, risking detection and potential arrest in the interest of temporary shelter.

The lessons don’t get very far, but they give the movie a better quality of human interest than Mr. Techine’s eventual twist: overnight sexual consummation between lady in distress and a feral youngster. This payoff seems to unfold in somebody’s dream state and leaves the scenario poised for total collapse.

While the menacing Germans remain mostly off-screen, “Strayed” limps toward a fade-out with self-inflicted wounds. It remains to be seen if it will be remembered fondly as a promising movie that expired as its own worst enemy.

Mr. Techine’s depiction of mass exodus and deadly peril on a country road is exceptionally effective. He makes a deft shift to pastoral isolation and respite as Odile and the children venture away from roads and population centers.

Agnes Godard’s cinematography is alive to exterior light, weather and sound. You feel as if you can breathe the settings. There are beautiful images of the characters moving across open fields, their spacing so impromptu and naturalistic that good direction becomes synonymous with no direction.

You are never persuaded that the pretext allows enough maneuvering room for human interest, adult or adolescent. Odile’s apprehensions about Yvan — and his potential influence on the admiring Philippe — always seem better founded than her sexual vulnerability to a wild boy’s prowess, exploited ultimately to her keen disadvantage as a protagonist.

It’s a relief when two older men show up, French soldiers named Georges and Robert, and it would be more plausible to bring Odile out of hiding with their counsel and assistance.

Their appearance seems to afford Mr. Techine a possible variation on the last half of “La Grande Illusion,” but he lets the opportunity lapse, despite generating a sense of rapport between Miss Beart and Jean Fornerod’s Georges, a chef by trade.

“Strayed” remains the account of a “Petite Illusion,” an attempt to elude wartime loss and estrangement that could be sustained for a matter of days at best. Both the plot and the principal characters suffer from a lack of foresight.

**1/2

TITLE: “Strayed”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, with graphic images of wartime carnage, occasional profanity, fleeting nudity and one explicit interlude of simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Andre Techine. Screenplay by Gilles Taurand and Mr. Techine, based on the novel “The Boy With Gray Eyes” by Gilles Perrault. Cinematography by Agnes Godard. Art direction by Ze Branco. Costume design by Christian Gasc. Music by Philippe Sarde. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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