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In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine World War II as a liberating force. Certainly it doesn’t seem to be for the grim Frenchwoman driving her two children south at the beginning of Strayed, fleeing the imminent fall of Paris to German troops. She’s already lost her husband in the early days of the conflict, and she sees only more deprivation ahead. For the mercurial 17-year-old who leads this woman’s family to safety, however, the war is an opportunity. He’s the product of an unsettled life, and he knows how to thrive on the edge of chaos.

For much of its running time, Strayed reveals neither the woman’s name nor the teenager’s real one. He calls himself Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), and for convenience’s sake, let’s disclose that she is Odile (Emmanuelle Béart, leading a flawless cast). Along with the kids, 13-year-old Philippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and 7-year-old Cathy (Clémence Meyer), Yvan and Odile constitute a temporary family, one that’s no more stable than the world around them. Briefly, the foursome finds refuge from the German threat, quickly and effectively represented by the Stukas that strafe the convoy of refugees, reducing Odile’s car to a smoking ruin. It’s only when the French surrender draws near, and authority begins to reassert itself, that the improvised household must collapse.

Strayed is the second French film this year to depict the panic of June 1940, following Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Bon Voyage. That film was playful and expansive, neither of which are qualities generally associated with Strayed director André Téchiné. His work tends to involve outsiders, volatile relationships, and sudden, momentous choices. In his films, the pressure is always on, even when there are no dive bombers overhead.

With measured irony, Strayed presents the quartet’s fleeting escape from the war as something of an idyll. Photographed evocatively by Agnès Godard, the French countryside is lush and mostly peaceful—and a bountiful source of protein for a savvy provider like Yvan, who knows how to fish, catch rabbits, and steal chickens. The family soon finds shelter in a grand country house, whose walls Yvan easily scales in order to smash a window and gain access. The proper, cautious, and utterly frazzled Odile is ambivalent about both Yvan and a lifestyle that, in peacetime, would be simple breaking and entering. Still, she has to admit that the château is the finest place she’s ever lived, even if she is often unnerved by her benefactor, who has a healthy respect for the Germans’ menace but seems more afraid of French authority. Yvan is pleased to be living in a house where two things that represent a larger order—the clocks and the phone—are not working.

Cathy, who is too young to abandon her innocence, is a minor character, but Philippe is something more. He’s the one who first negotiates—without his mother’s knowledge—for Yvan to become the family’s protector. And his conversations with Odile show a nearly adult understanding of what she’s experiencing. In some ways, Philippe is more sophisticated than Yvan, whose contact with civilizing forces has obviously been limited. (He tells stories about life in a reformatory, and though they aren’t always true, they do reveal something of his background.) Yet Philippe is eager to play the little brother to Yvan—a role the latter can cruelly exploit.

When on occasion they encounter a stranger, Odile identifies Yvan as her older son, and mother and wild child do sometimes emulate that relationship. For one thing, he’s illiterate and she’s a schoolteacher. But Yvan will yield to no one’s authority, and he bristles at Odile’s bourgeois sense of propriety. At the same time, he’s transfixed by her beauty. (She is Emmanuelle Béart, after all.) One foreboding scene with an ax suggests that Yvan might annihilate the entire family, but other moments hint that he’s waiting for the right moment to kiss Odile. Anyone who’s seen other Téchiné films—or the poster—will know which development to expect.

Visually or thematically, Strayed recalls several predecessors. The long tracking shot of the road clogged with refugees echoes the famous (and even longer) traffic-jam sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend; the basic tale is Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout transplanted from the Australian outback to a section of France that ordinarily wouldn’t be at all ominous. But stylistically, Téchiné is his own man, telling the story in a series of lean, crisp scenes. (His only miscalculation is the occasional insertion of snippets of World War II newsreel footage, designed to place the action in its era.) Adapted by the director and co-scripter Gilles Taurand from Gilles Perrault’s novel The Boy With the Grey Eyes, the film is a primal fable: the loss of sexual innocence, followed by expulsion from the garden. Characteristically, however, Téchiné depicts life in the family’s wooded sanctuary as being just as uneasy as in the larger world.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a lot like its protagonist: terse, mysterious, and maybe not quite so knowing as it pretends to be. Both film and man rely heavily on attitude—enigmatic glances, cryptic remarks, fades into the shadows. It’s a commonplace formula, but in director Mike Hodges’ hands it still works. Even after the story sort of fizzles, the sooty ambience lingers powerfully.

Following the critical success of Croupier, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is the second movie Hodges has made with Clive Owen, a commanding actor with a classic-cinema presence that suits the movie’s out-of-time vibe. Owen plays Will, the tale’s solitary warrior. (Hodges has called him a samurai, but what he means is a ronin, a dispossessed combatant with no remaining professional loyalties.) Once a “hard man” in grimy sections of South London that look as if they’d never been photographed before, Will has withdrawn to an unidentified forest, abandoning drink and crime. The bearded ex-mobster lives in a van and works as a logger. One day, his foreman lets him go because the new supervisor objects to his lack of identification documents.

The supervisor’s timing dovetails with that of another story we’ve been watching. Working-class coke dealer Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) has been partying with his betters, relying on his wares to secure both cash and female companionship. As Davey makes his rounds late one night, he’s followed by three men in an SUV. Eventually, he slips out of a fashion model’s bed and hails an unlicensed taxi back to Brixton. After the cab breaks down, Davey is grabbed by two of the thugs who’ve been following him; they hold him down while their boss, Boad (Malcolm McDowell), rapes him.

On the road, Will stops periodically and calls Davey, who turns out to be his younger brother. There’s no answer, so Will heads to London to learn what’s happened. The siblings’ mutual friend Mickser (Jamie Foreman), whose high-strung manner contrasts with his pals’ cool, already knows. He found Davey in a tub full of bloody water, his throat cut by his own hand. Once Will discovers that Davey is dead—and commissions an independent autopsy to learn why—he begins methodically planning his revenge on Boad. There are complications, however, including Will’s reacquaintance with abandoned lover Helen (Charlotte Rampling) and some unresolved business with gang lord Turner (Ken Stott), who wants Will either out of London or 6 feet under it. Finally comes the moment we’ve already seen this year, in The Twilight Samurai: Will cleans up and puts on his best clothes to prepare for the climactic duel.

Plot-conscious viewers will find plenty to second-guess in this update of Hodges’ script for 1971’s Get Carter. Would Davey really have killed himself in shame at the anal assault? Is Boad’s motivation for the attack credible? What exactly happens in the last five minutes? And would either Davey or Will really tolerate the jibbering, emotional Mickser? The film suffers from implausible characterizations and overly elliptical transitions, but it’s impossible to say if they come from Trevor Preston’s script or from Hodges’ neglect of it.

Purely as a mood piece, however, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a success. The performances are impeccable, the locations evocative, and the shadows deeper than the Marianas Trench. Crucial to the ambience is Simon Fisher Turner’s canny score, which combines ’50s-style atonal experiments with cool jazz and contemporary trip-hop. It’s as powerful a rejoinder to Hollywood-style glop as Hodges’ austere style, and an essential ingredient in a movie in which music and image easily trump a narrative that’s both conventional and confounding.CP