COME WHAT MAY – Review
In an unusual take on the World War II movie, French director Christian Carion focuses on a group of French villagers attempting to flee on the eve of the German invasion, in COME WHAT MAY. Carion directed JOYEUX NOEL, the crowd-pleasing film about the real World War I Christmas Truce, when some soldiers on both sides called a one-day unofficial truce. Carion’s new film, in French with some German and English and with subtitles,centers on a group of people whose stories are drawn from those of real civilian refugees. It is a well-made historical film with a talented international cast, fine period detail and filmed in lovely rural locations but the story leans towards the sentimental and conventional.
Carion co-wrote the film, which opens (and closes) with photos of real French refugees and a few words about their struggles, plus a dedication to the director’s mother, who was among those who fled the Nazi invasion. The historic drama sports a score by Oscar winner Ennio Morricone. The story begins with an anti-Nazi resistance fighter, Hans (August Diehl), who flees his native Germany with his young son Max (Joshio Marlon), and hides out in a northern French village, where they posies as Belgian refugees. When his true nationality is discovered, Hans is jailed in Arras but his frightened son is taken in by the village’s young teacher Suzanne (Alice Isaaz). As word of an impending German invasion reaches the village, the villagers decide to flee to the south of France, led by their steady mayor Paul (Olivier Gourmet) and his likable wife Mado (Mathilde Seigner). Meanwhile, facing the invading German army, the jailers in Arras release their prisoners to fend for themselves, and Hans goes in search of his son, with the help of a stranded Scottish officer named Percy (Welsh actor Matthew Rhys), who is desperate to rejoin the British forces.
The villagers, some of whom are veterans of the last war, expect the French and British armies to slow the advance of the Germans, as they did in World War I. But events unfolded differently in this war, and the civilians quickly find themselves on clogged roads filled with other refugees and in dangerous territory with no easy way out.
The premise of this film makes it is an unusual war drama, one that focuses on civilians and in which battles are on the fringe of events. The international cast means the film can tell stories drawn from various experiences of real war refugees. The film has some strong dramatic moments but the setting in the pretty French countryside and its lush period details give the film a visual beauty that seems at odds with its wartime subject.
COME WHAT MAY is a heroic tale with a sincere tone and an authentic look but the film is best described as a respectable historical drama more than as gripping cinema. There are some taut dramatic scenes, often involving the German resistance fighter and the Scottish officer, and some touching moments as well, but at other times, the film has the sense of docudrama, with the international cast nobly playing out scenes likely based on true events. In other moments, it takes on a sentimental or melodramatic tone, with forced, predictable scenes. Still, the film deserves credit for tackling a little-covered part of the war, the plight of civilians caught up in the fighting.
Despite the war setting, the film is often prettily pastoral as the villagers move through the rural byways, with the war a distant rumor. Later in the film, we do get scenes of armies passing by and a few harrowing encounters with the invaders. The drama generally avoids any graphic depictions of warfare violence when the refugees do come into the line of fire. The German refugee and his Scottish companion have more harrowing moments, as they come in closer contact with the Germans while attempting to slip through the lines. Along the way, they encounter a French farmer who cannot bear to leave his cellar of fine wines behind for the Germans and decides to stay, and a German film director shooting a documentary about the invasion of France. The cast of characters gives the film an international flavor but seems a bit contrived, representing groups affected by the war more than real people. The rural villagers carrying their internal debates and small-town factions onto the road, the German resistance fighter trying to find his little boy among the hoards of refugees, the kind-hearted teacher taking the boy in like her own, the Scottish officer whose older brother fought in France in the last war – all seem too conveniently packaged to feel real, despite the fine work by the actors to soften that feeling. Moments of predictable melodrama are injected to motivate the history-based events. Even Morricone’s score has a comfortable predictability to it.
COME WHAT MAY is a very sincere historical film about an overlooked aspect of WWII, well-directed and beautifully shot with some nice acting and moving scenes, if a rather conventional dramatic film overall. Still there are some striking moments, and the inspiring, sentimental story set in the pretty French countryside will connect with some audiences.
COME WHAT MAY opens in St. Louis on Friday, Sept. 30, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema.
3 1/2 of 5 STARS