France, 1940. The recently widowed Odile (Béart) is fleeing Paris with her 13-year-old son Philippe (Leprince-Ringuet) and 7-year-old daughter Catherine (Meyer), when their convoy comes under aerial attack. A resourceful young man named Yvan (Ulliel) helps the trio escape into the forest, moving them into an abandoned manor house for shelter. With the passing weeks, Odile overcomes her misgivings about the mysterious stranger, and finds a special place for him in their new family unit; but when two soldiers pass through with news from the outside world, reality brings the country idyll to an end - of sorts.
As dense and disorienting as the forest in which most of its events unfold, André Téchiné's Strayed is very ambitious. Its opening scenes are a vivid and terrifying reconstruction of the Paris evacuation, intercut with genuine archival footage, all of which suggests a sweeping historical war epic. But as Odile and her children stray into the woods, so the film shifts in tone, entering the rather different generic territories of the domestic drama, the rites-of-passage story, the mystery thriller, and even, at least from Catherine's childish perspective, the fairytale.
As Philippe puts it, "This place is so peaceful, you'd never know it's war" - and it is just as easy to forget (until the end) that Strayed is at heart a war film, allegorising the disruptions to civilian life that war engenders as well as the adjustments and accommodations that it demands. Odile's attempts to negotiate a path between town and country, civilisation and barbarism, liberty and entrapment, parental protectiveness and sexual desire, all give dramatic form to the contradictions that confronted the French under the Occupation, when the clock stopped on normal life.
Reuniting director Téchiné with actress Béart for the first time since 1991's J'Embrasse Pas (I Don't Kiss), Strayed is a film that is difficult to fault on technical grounds. In their countryside setting, made to look at once beautiful and menacing by the lens of cinematographer Agnes Godard, the four leads show real sensitivity to the way in which their characters' inter-relationships subtly change and evolve as Yvan's role shifts from saviour to brother to father to son to lover.
Yet in their adaptation from Gilles Perrault's novel ('Le Garçon Aux Yeux Gris'), Téchiné and his co-writer Gilles Taurine have forgotten to make their characters interesting, with the result that the film's drama falls flat from early on, never to rise again. The scene in which bourgeois Odile gives in to her increasing attraction to wild Yvan is laughable in the unlikelihood of its details, and while the mystery of Yvan's true identity and background may be central to the structure of Strayed, any viewer still engaged enough to care about the solution is likely to find it banal when it finally arrives.
Most of all, the film suffers from its proximity to Michael Haneke's Time Of The Wolf (2003). For where both films are concerned with a mother and her two children made refugees in a war-torn country and helped by an untrustworthy young man, Haneke's film is gripping, intense and provocative, while Téchiné's is merely a collection of impressive parts adding up to a whole that is strangely uninvolving.