Award winning director Cédric Kahn’s Vie Sauvage (Wild Life) is an intriguing film based on a true story which defies expectations and raises several questions over the issue of child rearing in a techology-obsessed society. It also challenges the idea of the superiority of the mother-child bond and presents a compelling argument for greater acknowledgement in French divorce courts for the role of the father in raising a family.
It’s the end of the 1990s and Philippe Fournier (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his partner Nora (Céline Sellette) are bringing up their children in a commune. Nora has tired of the alternative lifestyle and has decided she wants the children to go a proper school and integrate into French society. She runs away with Tsali (David Gastou) aged 9, Okyasa (Sofiane Neveu) aged 8 and their half brother and the courts eventually give her main custody of the children. While visiting their father, Phillippe decides not to return Tsali and Okyasa to their mother and spends the next 11 years on the run. Nora spends those years desperately searching for hers sons and never giving up hope of their return.
This is Kahn’s second film based on a real-life event. Roberto Succo
told the story of an Italian who killed his parents in 1981 and five years later, while on release from a psychiatric hospital, went on a two-year criminal spree before capture by the police. The main protagonist in Vie Sauvage
also lives on the edge of society, albeit within the confines on the law. Admirably Kahn choses not to judge Phillippe for his decision to deprive his sons of their mother. He portrays him as an idealist who vehemently believes children are happier living closer to nature. He is not an activist out to convert others to his way of life, but simply wants to be left alone to bring up his children in accordance with his beliefs. It’s ironic that life on the run – without legal papers for his sons and forcing them to regularly change identity – removes the notion of freedom-of-choice that lies so close to Philippe’s heart.
And there is a slight tendancy for the film to overplay the idyllic, back-to-nature aspect of the alternative lifestyle, while downplaying some obvious disadvantages. Scenes of bucolic bliss and endless starry nights around a bonfire while the children gambol in the background outweigh those showing the reality of life on the run. Tsali and Okyasa have none of life’s comforts and do back-breaking, menial tasks to help their father earn money. As adolescence kicks in, both kids start to rebel against their father’s lifestyle and here Vie Sauvage reserves it’s greatest surprise.
Without Kassovitz’s beautifully controlled performance as Philippe, the character could easily be repellant. There are hints of a darker, more torturted man deep within the nature-loving, hard working Philippe, but this man stays hidden and the loving father gains the upper hand. After a superb performance in Tony Gatlif’s Geronimo,
Sellette is highly convincing as Nora, although unfortunately Kahn limits her role to just a few scenes at the beginning and end of the film. Thought provoking and intelligent, Vie Sauvage
is one of Kahn’s best films to date.