June 1940 - with the imminent arrival of German troops in Paris, large convoys of people make the perilous exodus from the capital for the South of France. Among them are Odile (Emmanuelle Béart), a widowed schoolteacher whose husband had been killed early in the war, and her two children Philippe and Cathy. The family’s car is destroyed when the convoy is attacked by a German fighter plane, and they take shelter in a nearby forest. They are assisted by Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), a young 17 year old lad from one of the many destroyed or evacuated villages in the south. Odile is naturally wary of the young man, but needs his help to find food and shelter for her children. Yvan proves quite capable in this, knowing the region and its dangers well, taking the risks of night-time excursions to retrieve objects from dead soldiers and provisions from abandoned homes. But he has taken the precaution of cutting phone lines to ensure their isolation from what is happening outside, and his motives are not clear.
Strayed (Les Égarés) demonstrates André Téchiné’s qualities as a filmmaker – a rigorous formalist with regards to composition, pacing and performance, he nevertheless has a certain quirkiness or deconstructive tendency with regards to characterisation and narrative that takes him away from a more conservative or traditional approach. Strayed is, I believe, the first film the auteurist director has made as work-for-hire and although those tendencies are less evident here in this mainstream film, the strengths of Téchiné’s approach to characterisation are still evident. Adapted from Gilles Perrault’s novel ‘Le Garçon aux Yeux Gris’, the director nevertheless found themes in the book that he could relate to and worked on adapting the screenplay with screenwriter Gilles Taurand, who co-scripted another story of a young runaway with Téchiné for his 1998 film Alice et Martin.
Coming to French cinema screens around the same time as Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Bon Voyage, the disparity between Les Égarés and Rappeneau’s almost cartoonish commercial blockbuster version of the exodus from Paris could hardly be greater. Making use of the always impressive Agnès Godard (DoP for Claire Denis on films such as The Intruder and Trouble Every Day), the cinematography here is quite stunning, Téchiné taking full advantage of the locations and the beautiful backlighting of the sun in the fields, using them as a backdrop for his typical subject matter of characters - often adolescents - on the rocky road to adulthood, taken out of their familiar surroundings and finding conflict in relationships and in adapting to their new lives (Rendez-vous, J’Embrasse Pas, Alice et Martin).
In this hostile new environment that the war has placed them in, Odile, a mother and a schoolteacher, is naturally protective of her children and attempts to provide instruction in the laying down of new rules – but she is outside her classroom here and in a world she is unable to control, having difficulty in ceding some authority and responsibility to a 17 year old. Yvan, neither a boy nor a man, is also in unfamiliar territory – unable to relate meaningfully or comfortably with either Odile or her 13 year old son Philippe. War however makes strange alliances, and as Odile admits, it’s instructive to occasionally stray from the familiar path. For the children also it is a learning experience - the war, the loss of their father and their circumstances as refugees forcing them to grow up more quickly than normal. Téchiné takes great care to realistically and poignantly depict their development also. The position and direction of each of these characters is therefore defined in the first few minutes of the film, where they literally stray from the path that everyone else is on, and in doing so have to stray from normal paths of behaviour in order to be able to survive.
Inevitably however, the outside world intrudes on their little idyll away from the horrors of the outside world, and inevitably draws them back on the path society believes they should be following. Téchiné however handles the precipitation of events and heightened drama of the finale with delicacy and force, capturing the complexity of the characters coming to an awareness of what they are doing and what they have to go back to.
Strayed is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format.
Strayed is transferred anamorphically, with black borders to preserve the film’s 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The video quality here is not quite perfect, but any problems that are there are very minor indeed. A fleck of dust here, the odd flicker of macro-compression there – but the fact that any of this is visible at all is down to the overall quality of the image from all other aspects. Strayed is a film that makes great use of the lush verdancy of the French countryside under the sun of a blazing summer, and the transfer here does full justice to the deep, rich colour schemes. The image has excellent clarity and sharpness, with pitch perfect contrast and blacks and fine detail. Even in long shots, fast movement and pans of the camera, the image remains impressively sharp and clear. I noticed a little bit of pixilation in one or two freeze frames, but this is not prevalent and may well only be down to the transfer of the finished disc to the DVD-R checkdisc that was provided for review.
The DVD comes with only a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, rather than the surround mix that might be expected, and which is indeed available on the French DVD edition. Nonetheless, the stereo mix proves to be more than adequate, with clarity in the dialogue and strong separation, depth, and accuracy in the smallest of minor noises and sound effects.
English subtitles are provided in a white font of appropriate size.
There are no extra features on the DVD.
Rather like the characters in the film, André Téchiné, has found himself astray in recent years, increasingly driving down a path that is entirely his own, a non-commercial path that has undoubtedly made funding for his films increasingly difficult. The decision to make a work-for-hire film and step back on the path was therefore probably a necessity, but clearly a good decision. Téchiné has developed themes in Gilles Perrault’s novel that he can work well with and the result is a strong mainstream film that still resonates with the director’s personal themes and interests, finding more intimate moments of character examination and development in the midst of a wartime situation. Soda Pictures’ DVD release, although lacking in any supplementary features, is nevertheless very impressive, doing full justice to a well-made and beautifully shot film.