Don’t call it a comeback, but World War II movies are having a bit of a renaissance. (Seriously, don’t call it a comeback…they’ve been here for years.) There are seemingly endless ways to approach a WWII story — Hacksaw Ridge and Allied were in theatres recently, while the next few months will bring The Zookeeper’s Wife and Dunkirk — but the majority of movies that actually get made skew toward the American/British perspective. That’s the main reason Come What May — a somewhat sappy, intensely personal film from France — stands out from the pack.
“The German offensive of May 10th, 1940 drove almost eight million people from their homes.”
Despite that opening bit of history and the fact that the first grainy images we see depict French families fleeing their homes, the film actually opens in 1939 Germany. We meet German activist Hans (August Diehl), who flees the country with young son Max (Joshio Marlon) to avoid the Gestapo. The father-son duo eventually settles in the French village of Pas-de-Calais, where Hans implores Max to keep their German origin hidden. Unfortunately for them and the rest of the villagers, Nazi Germany infringes on their lives once again.
Hans is suddenly arrested and separated from Max. With growing whispers of war on the horizon, Pas-de-Calais mayor Paul (Olivier Gourmet) follows a governmental recommendation that urges the villagers to abandon their homes and head south. Max is placed under the care of kind-hearted young schoolteacher Suzanne (Alice Isaaz). Meanwhile, Hans finds himself out of prison thanks to the chaos caused by an air raid. He reluctantly joins forces with Percy (Matthew Rhys), a Scottish officer and the only surviving member of a British company of soldiers. Percy resolves to help Hans reunite with Max, despite the fact that father and son happen to have the mighty German military between them.
Come What May — or En mai, fais ce qu’il te plait for our readers who speak Francais — is directed by Christian Carion, whose mother was one of the millions of French citizens who took to the road as Germany encroached on their country. As a result, the movie contains several touches and storytelling beats that probably wouldn’t occur to a filmmaker who didn’t have this sort of personal connection to the material. Those moments are often small and include a welcome bit of humor — a horse named “Hitler” and boozy vignette centered around fine French wine — but Carion nails the war-weary mindset of many French citizens who couldn’t (and didn’t want to) believe that another World War was imminent.
In fact, Come What May is essentially two films: the story of displaced villagers hitting the road to survive and a sentimental odyssey about a father moving heaven and earth to reunite with his son. You can’t really fault Diehl (best known as a snarky, know-it-all Nazi in Inglourious Basterds) and Rhys (thoroughly excellent on FX’s The Americans) for being stuck starring in the lesser half of this movie. Diehl, in particular, is largely trapped playing one note (indignant), but the actors do have good chemistry. It’s a shame that their storyline (you’re not going to believe it, but Hans and Percy grudgingly come to respect and like each other) is thoroughly predictable. The most intriguing part of this pairing is the undercurrent of tension between Hans and Percy; Hans resents Britain (and by extension Percy) for not squashing the German offensive early on, before it became unwieldy and unstoppable.
And while the scenes showing the people of Pas-de-Calais on the road are superior, there’s still a lack of focus to them. It’s because Carion splits his time here between his conflicted mayor struggling to keep his people calm (Gourmet’s cranky performance is probably the best part of this movie) and Max’s naive, very childlike response to his increasingly tragic circumstances. I suppose I can understand why Carion concocted the father-son angle — Max leaves information about his whereabouts on blackboards for his father — but I really wish the film had stuck with the displaced villagers, who seemed more concerned with fixing the town windmill early on than they were about a possible second World War.
The two halves of Come What May do eventually collide, and the movie does a fantastic job of capturing the trauma of having to abandon one’s home. (It encapsulates a person’s house, their hometown, their fields, etc.) Although the film’s romantic final shot rings a bit false, this is still an affecting, well-made drama.
Come What May is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 35 mbps. The movie opens with some brief, black and white newsreel footage of French villagers abandoning their homes, but that is quickly replaced by an impressively panoramic presentation. Much of the film depicts the expansive French countryside, which is shown crisply in this largely clean presentation. Although the baseline image for most outdoor scenes is slightly overexposed, flesh tones are pleasingly warm here, which is a nice juxtaposition with the story’s miserable circumstances. Unfortunately, a key scene in an underground tunnel reveals some troublesome black levels where dark spots blur and bleed into each other.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is mostly in French, but includes liberal helpings of German and English. The dialogue is always clean, but the real standouts on this track can be found elsewhere. Composer Ennio Morricone’s work here isn’t nearly as iconic as his best-known work, but his evocative, effective score gradually swells from all channels when it is called upon to do so. The quiet scenes on this track make the all-encompassing moments — an air raid with multiple bombs; machine gun fire — that much more jarring and effective. There is fantastic directionality on display as planes fly from one rear channel to the next. Those explosions of sound are few and far between, but they pack a consistent wallop.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Audio Commentary with director Christian Carion: The filmmaker goes into great detail here about the family history that inspired this film. (His grandfather was the mayor of a small village, and his mother was one of the people driven out by the German offensive.) While we also get some technical/filmmaking nuggets (a subtle reaction shot reveals why Max’s father was arrested), this track is most noteworthy for all the ties to real-life. (Carion filmed on some of the same roads French families used during their exodus.)
The Making of Come What May: (22:21) Plenty of on-the-set footage here to go along with comments from cast and crew. (The cast includes an elderly woman, making her acting debut, who was 4 years old when her family fled from the Germans.) Despite the grim subject matter, the mood on set appeared to be relentlessly jovial. This featurette also covers the subtle use of CGI (to create planes and additional tanks) in the movie.
Behind the Scenes with composer Ennio Morricone: (28:54) The best special feature on this disc offers an extended glimpse at a living legend in his natural habitat. In addition to studio footage of Morricone recording the score, we get an amusing anecdote from Carion about his disastrous first meeting with the composer. (Morricone hated being brought on board late in the process; he usually writes his music as the director is writing a film.) We also get insight from the composer, who was hesitant to work on another war film but was persuaded when he realized this movie is about avoiding war.
Interview with director Christian Carion and Richard Pena: (38:59) Pena, former program director at Film Society of Lincoln Center, has a lively and entertaining chat with the director, who offers additional context for France’s state of mind in the year leading up to World War II. (The country was traumatized from the first World War and dubious it could happen again.) Though this interview covers a lot of the same material Carion discusses in the commentary, I preferred this more conversational bonus feature.
Come What May certainly has its cheesy moments. And even when the movie is quite good, it’s in a quiet way that doesn’t exactly pack an emotional wallop. But it’s worth watching if you’re interested in seeing a World War II story told from a different perspective.