Christian Duguay’s Un Sac de Billes is the second time the best-selling autobiographical novel has been brought to the big screen coming over forty years after Jacques Doillon’s own adaptation of the book by Joseph Jollo. On the positive side, Duguay’s film is beautifully shot and boasts fine performances from its two main actors aged just 17 and 12-years-old. But is otherwise an over-blown, melodramatic account of a difficult period in modern French history which strangely lacks any emotional depth. There is plenty to pull at the heartstrings. Two young brothers forced to fend for themselves when the German occupation of France and subsequent persecution of Jews puts their lives in danger. Yet Duguay’s film sticks to a standard formula with a set cast of characters – the cruel German officer, the brave resistance fighter and the odious French collaborator. At times it almost has shades of Louis Malle’s Oscar winning Au Revoir Les Enfants in its view of the treatment of jews from a child’s perspective but without Malle’s authentic sympathy for the era.
Maurice (Batyste Fleurial) and Joseph (Dorian Le Clech) leave their parents Roman (Patrick Bruel) and Anna ( Elza Zylberstein) behind in Vichy France and travel to the French riviera town of Nice in the free-zone to join their older siblings Henri (César Domboy) and Albert (Ilian Bergala). The family is soon reunited, but once again the German occupation separates Maurice and Joseph from their parents and brothers. The two face possible capture and deportation before the family can come back together.
Duguay has given more weight to the role of Roman, played convincingly by Bruel and Anna, the less convincing Zylberstein, than in Jollo’s original book. This does emphasise the sense of loss on both sides as the children flee the Nazi occupation. but distracts from the far more interesting relationship between the two brothers which progresses from sibling camaraderie to a more mature, balanced understanding. Both Fleurial and Le Clech are outstanding, especially Le Clech who exudes an incredibly touching innocence and vulnerability. Other casting choices are unfortunate. France’s popular stand-up comedian Kev Adams is a resistance fighter who pays for his convictions. The role is a complete change of register for Adams usually found in lightweight comedies such as Fiston and the massively successful Les Profs 1 &2. He is out of his depth in a role which is completely undermined by his comedy background. Duguay’s last two full-length features, (Belle et Sebastian, l’Aventure Continue and Jappeloup starring Guillaume Canet) did well at the box-office and despite it flaws Un Sac de Billes will no doubt prove equally successful based more on its heartwarming tale dear to French hearts than artistic merit.