Director Christian Carion’s last two films were based on true stories and his latest, En mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît follows the same trend. The award winning Joyeux Noël recounted the extraordinary events of December 1914 when opposing soldiers on the Western Front lay down their arms to celebrate Christmas together. L’Affaire Farewell went back to the height of the Cold War with the tale of a French and a KGB spy who smuggled Soviet secrets to the West. En mai fais ce qu’il te plaît is also set against the backdrop of a war. But this pseudo-Western, complete with wide open spaces and horse-drawn wagons, fails to deliver the same emotion punch as Carion’s earlier work. It’s undoubtedly full of good intentions yet lacks dramatic tension or any real sense of purpose and has nothing original to say about war, patriotic duty or sacrifice.
It’s May 1940 and some eight million French people take to the road on a journey south to escape the invading German army. Paul (Olivier Gourmet), the mayor of a small village in northern France, tells his fellow villagers to pack up their belongings and follow him and his wife (Mathilde Seigner Une Mère) to safety in Dieppe. Among the villagers is a small boy Max (Joshio Marlon) whose father Hans (August Diehl) opposed the Nazi régime and sought refuge in France before being imprisoned in Arras for lying about his nationality. He is being looked after by young school teacher Suzanne (Alice Isaaz Un Moment d”Egarement, La Crème de La Crème). When Arras is bombed by the Germans, Hans manages to escape and sets out to look for his son accompanied by a Scottish soldier Percy (Matthew Rhys The Americans) making his way back to England.
National characteristics are writ large. The Germans are cruel and sadistic; the French are patriotic, bon-viveurs and the sole representative of the British displays an admirably stiff upper lip. (And a very pukka English accent given his Scottish origins.) Carion has delivered two separate stories destined to intersect at some point. But he struggles to make this cross-over appear credible. While Hans and Percy engage in more traditional war time pursuits – escape scenes and shoot-outs – the narrative value of the wagon train south is more difficult to appreciate. It’s drawn-out and uneventful mercifully rescued by Ennio Morricone’s swooping score – his first composition for a French film in 30 years.
Clearly shot before the events of the last few months which have seen thousands of people marching across Europe as they flee war back home, En mai, fais ce qu’il t plait may labour a point, but it does seem eerily prescient.