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Friday, June 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By John Hartl
André Téchiné, director of "Wild Reeds" and "My Favorite Season," is gradually becoming one of the most dependable European filmmakers, as well as one of the least predictable. His latest, "Strayed," is a beautifully balanced portrait of a family that is tested and irrevocably altered by a devastating World War II experience.
The opening scenes are nearly a re-creation of the beginning of René Clément's Oscar-winning 1952 classic, "Forbidden Games," with German planes strafing French refugees fleeing Paris. The random bullets instantly wipe out whole families, turning children into orphans, robbing parents of their kids, setting cars and fortunes on fire.
Everything is transformed in a matter of seconds. Chaos reigns. So does the necessity of reinvention.
It's as if Téchiné had taken the premise of Clément's film and steered it in a slightly different direction, concentrating not on traumatized children but on the connection one family makes with a wily survivor. Emmanuelle Béart gives one of her strongest performances as the recently widowed mother, Odile; also perfectly cast are Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet as her 13-year-old son, Philippe, and Clémence Meyer as her 7-year-old daughter, Cathy.
Philippe badly needs a father figure, and he thinks he's found one in Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), an older teenager who helps them escape the Germans. His hunting skills provide them with fresh meat, and when they find a boarded-up chateau with a wine cellar, the four of them tentatively settle in and start functioning as a family.
At this point, "Strayed" stops behaving like a war movie and turns into a sexually charged tale of survival and gradual accommodation. Odile is wary of Yvan, but she appreciates his contributions to their meals as well as his raw charm and she starts to teach him how to read and write. At the same time, he alienates Philippe, who begins to see Yvan as a feral creature rather than a big brother. When two strangers turn up at the house, however, the new family bands together.
Working from Gilles Perrault's novel, "The Boy With Gray Eyes," Téchiné and his screenwriter, Gilles Taurand, create quite a sense of mystery and expectation around Yvan, and they've found the actor who can carry it off. Alternately playful, dangerous and fatalistic, Ulliel turns Yvan into a heartbreaking life force.
John Hartl: email@example.com
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