“The clocks aren’t working here,” someone remarks late in André Téchiné’s Strayed, and indeed, for most of its duration, this terse, discreetly haunting World War II drama conjures the illusion of time standing still—even as the outside world races toward catastrophe. June 1940: Odile (Emmanuelle Béart), a bourgeois young widow, and her two children have fled Paris to join the exodus of refugees slowly snaking through the southbound country roads. Typically brisk, Téchiné isolates telling details (the price of water, a hitchhiker’s panicked desperation) and launches right into a Stuka bombing—itself a marvel of economy, staged with clipped, heart-stopping lucidity.
In a matter of minutes, with an all-seeing urgency that recalls the panoramic sweep of similar scenes in Ian McEwan’s masterful novel Atonement, Strayed summons the terrifying suddenness and randomness of an air attack. The German dive-bombers fire into the convoy, and the huddled masses can only close their eyes and wait as the planes circle back for more. (In a single shot of a Stuka swooping over a row of prone bodies, Téchiné makes palpable the sense of survival as a game of chance.) The commotion deposits Odile’s family—shaken but otherwise unscathed—in the woods, in the company of a wiry teenager, Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), who recommends that they continue off-road. Odile regards this enigmatic scamp with overt suspicion, but little Cathy (Clémence Meyer) and especially adolescent Philippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) are captivated by his rogue self-sufficiency and take-charge attitude.
After this hit-and-run of an opening, Strayed slips into a rustic idyll. Their first night together, this makeshift family sleeps, as Cathy puts it, “under the stars . . . like animals,” and sure enough, Yvan’s designated role is that of the wild child—he leads them all deeper into nature, in every sense. The setting is practically an enchanted forest—all chirping birds and scampering rabbits, amber grain fields and sun-soaked meadows. (It’s amazing what cinematographer Agnès Godard can do with a palette of chlorophyll and summer light.) The foursome set up home in an abandoned mansion with a stocked wine cellar, and Yvan’s hunting and looting skills keep them well fed. Were it not for the occasional corpse in the countryside, you’d never know there was a war going on.
The reality principle is enforced with sparingly interjected newsreel footage, but Téchiné is concerned mainly with the frictions and re-alignments that arise as these volatile, vulnerable creatures interact within this faintly unreal and almost perfectly hermetic world. In this experiment in human nature, Yvan, who never entirely loses his edge of menace, serves as all-purpose catalyst and surrogate. Odile alternates between bossiness and kindness toward Yvan, but her maternal instincts are complicated by their mutual sexual curiosity. Philippe idealizes the older boy, who, habitually mistrustful, is all too willing to exploit his adoration.
The most touching relationship is the one between Odile and Philippe, both still numb from losing the man in their lives and tacitly negotiating a new equilibrium for themselves—time and again, the watchful, precocious son rebuffs his mother’s intense protectiveness and displaces it back onto her. The actors are all superb, none more so than Béart, her famous pout not coquettish but sternly petulant, her beseeching face a quiet tumult of contradictory emotions. Clenched and emotionally spent, her Odile suffers the strain of being above all else a mother—she doesn’t have a conversation with another adult (and we don’t even learn her name) until deep into the film.
As with Téchiné’s best work, Strayed is a peculiar, lingering blend of robustness and delicacy—a movie with hardly a single wasted frame, incongruous word, or false gesture. The end of the innocence is marked by an erotic consummation—under the stars, like animals—and once the deed is done, external forces can no longer be kept at bay. By film’s end, it’s a shock to realize that the bulk of the action has spanned only four days. The spell is broken, the sun-dappled lull consigned to memory. The clocks start ticking again.