Day 41: Sylvie Testud in “La France” is BTS

In the cinematic pantheon of gender-bending turns, everyone must bow before Leslie Cheung, whose otherworldly talent and lethal neediness make him the gay Callas of 1940s Peking opera in “Farewell My Concubine”. Then there’s his uber-glam, big-haired distant cousin in the American indie scene, John Cameron Mitchell in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”. The women crossing the gender divide, on the other hand, eschew the pomp and diva pageantry for understated inner carnage. But, ah, these female chameleons’ strum und drang is just as al dente. Try not to be hypnotized by Hilary Swank’s heartbreaking, go-for-broke Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry”.  Forget “Transamerica” and its self-conscious androgynous gimmickry. Swank serves up the grit and grime of trailer-park America as she lays bare its spiritual anomie.

And then there’s Sylvie Testud, the double César Award-winning French actress, writer and filmmaker.  Although her most high-profile role to date (this side of the Atlantic, at least) was as Mômone, the gamine waif singing for scraps with Marion Cotillard’s Edith Piaf in “La Vie En Rose”, that is about to change with her turn in “La France”, a WWI war musical that’s part Romantic odyssey, part melancholic essay on loss and aimlessness, and part showcase of Beach-Boys era sunshine pop. As the Great War rages on, Camille (Testud) receives a mysterious letter from her husband at the front: Forget about me, he writes, you will never see me again. Determined to find him nevertheless, she ventures into the damp wilderness disguised as a boy and falls in with a small regiment of deserters led by a gruff but kind-hearted lieutenant (Pascal Gregory, whom I last saw in Rohmer’s “Pauline at the Beach”).  Helmed by Serge Bozon, “La France” (which I saw at the Anthology Film Archives) is a beautiful curiosity. Bozon orchestrates a sweet alchemy of discordant genres without missing a beat (literally). And Testud’s Camille is its savage conscience, the faint flicker illuminating the soldiers’ way as they plow on, mirthlessly and musically, into the forgetful night. 

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