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Originally published Friday, September 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"La France": What's French for half-baked?

"La France": Serge Bozon makes his directing debut with this French oddity about a teenage cross-dresser who hangs out with soldiers who threaten to sing their way through World War I.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"La France," with Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory. Directed by Serge Bozon, from a screenplay by Axelle Ropert. 102 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (includes nudity, sex scene, violence). In French, with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum.

In the late 1940s, film critic James Agee thought he'd seen just about everything when he reviewed "Bill and Coo," an hourlong film featuring a cast made up of trained birds, most of them wearing hats and neckties.

"By conservative estimate," he called it "the goddamndest thing ever seen."

A new World War I drama, "La France," may give "Bill and Coo" a run for its money. About half an hour into this earnest, sketchy tale of a teenage cross-dresser hanging out with French soldiers in 1917, the troops unexpectedly burst into song.

They sing from the viewpoint of a blind girl, the lyrics echoing their new companion's androgynous nature. They jam the lyrics together to fill out a line, and they don't seem to have rehearsed with their instruments (where did the accordion and banjo come from?). The result plays a lot like a number lifted from an especially surreal Hollywood musical.

Sylvie Testud, who was Paul Rudd's co-star in 2002's "The Chateau," plays the stubborn Camille, who joins the soldiers in order to track down her husband. He's sent her a letter warning her not to try to find him; she's determined to solve the mystery of his disappearance.

While she encourages the soldiers to believe she's a boy, they initially want no part of her. A lieutenant (Pascal Greggory) shoots her in the hand to scare her off, and inevitably she's suspected of being a spy.

"La France" never quite convinces us that Camille could pass for a male. She straps down her breasts and talks tough, but when she suddenly kisses a man, the moment is not as startling as it was clearly meant to be. It's a tradition carried over from the stage, where distance and makeup can make sexual confusion easier to carry off.

The young director, Serge Bozon, won a Jean Vigo award for best first feature film for "La France." Visually the movie has a freshness that's emphasized in the first scene and continues to impress. The lush forest scenes are like nothing in any previous World War I movie.

Still, you might want to file this one under Novelties and Cult Items, Not Completely Baked.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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