Christian Carion’s refugees-on-the-march World War II drama Come What May is the kind of old-fashioned war movie that’s crafted not just to emphasize history’s horror and brutality. Yes, Carion stages the occasional slaughter with heartsick brio, and sometimes can’t resist taking pleasure when the violence goes against the bad guys, the Nazis. But he’s also out to champion the spirit of everyday folks, in this case the resilient denizens of a French village ordered to decamp from their homes in 1940 as the Germans sweep through.
In moments of tender warmth, light seems to glow from within the refugees’ faces as Ennio Morricone’s score swells persuasively, and then for a laugh a goose will amble into the frame. It’s that kind of movie, pitting human decency against the forces of darkness, which in this case harry the tufted Nord-Pas-de-Calais countryside with Panzer tanks and Messerschmitt fighter planes. The goose cowers from the former and gapes at the latter, and audiences might be likewise confused: Carion doesn’t seem certain, in these sequences, whether we should be dazzled at his showmanship or scared at the might of the Reich.
The rest of the time, Carion is pushily certain of what we’re supposed to feel, even at the expense of in-scene reality. When two characters who have been longing for each other are reunited, the director has one first spot the other’s feet, and then look up, slowly, over the rest of the person, only gradually realizing who it is. Why the other person, the one just posed there as the music crests, waits through all this rather than announce himself is one of those mysteries we must chalk up to Movie Magic.
The film follows two related stories: German resistance fighter Hans (August Diehl), hiding out in France, gets separated from his eight-year-old son Max (Joshio Marlon) and endeavors to find him. The son gets bundled off with the townsfolk, trudging in a caravan to a safer city, cared for by a schoolteacher (Alice Isaaz) quick-witted enough to get all the refugee kids to recite memorized schoolwork aloud with her rather than look at the corpses along the roadside. Max is apparently clever as well, though we don’t see much of him; he leaves messages for his father on schoolhouse chalkboards in every town they pass through. His father, meanwhile, is having a behind-enemy-lines war-movie adventure with Scottish soldier Percy (Matthew Rhys), and together the two ace a couple German scouts, steal their motorcycle and slowly come to respect each other, movie-dude style.
Come What May stirs little suspense or unease as it cuts between these stories. Since it’s a movie with a funny goose, we have little doubt that father and son will be reunited, just as a funny goose was Clue #1 that the boy and equine hero in War Horse would eventually get back together, too. We do witness Nazi atrocities, of course, but these bad guys usually don’t stick around long, at one point storming through a town Hans and Percy are hiding out in, killing a battalion of black French soldiers — and then just leaving or something. The next time Carion cuts back to our heroes, Hans and Percy are puttering down the road scot-free.
For all its movie-world unreality, Come What May actually has at its core a fascinating question: What war-movie plot template could you use to craft a crowd-pleaser honoring the real lives of French country folks in retreat from the Nazis? The answer, of course, isn’t just narratives of perseverance and caring for each other. It’s in the noble comedy of the rustic gourmand, here embodied by the farmer/connoisseur who, told to pack up and clear out, visits his wine cellar to bid adieu to his collection — and passes out after too many farewell sips. It’s that kind of movie.