by Allan Fish
(France 1971 355m) not on DVD
Aka. The House in the Woods
p Pierre Long, Yves Laumet d Maurice Pialat w René Wheeler ph Roger Duculot ed Martine Giordano, Arlette Langmann m Maurice Ravel, etc. art Isabelle Lapierre
Hervé Lévy (Hervé), Michel Terrazon (Michel), Albert Martinez (Bébért), Pierre Doris (Albert), Jacqueline Dufranne (Mother Jeanne), Agathe Natanson (Marguerite), Ovila Légaré (priest), Alexandre Rignault (Birot), Jean Mauvais (Mahu), Fernand Gravey (Marquis), Henri Saulquin (Le Bedeau), Albert Michel (Cottin), Henri Puff (Marcel), Michel Tugot-Doris (sergeant), Paul Crauchet (Paul, Hervé’s father), Philippe André (Jacques), Maurice Pialat (teacher), Marie-Christine Boulard (Mme.Pouilly), Micha Bayard (M’elle Latour), Barbara Laage (Hélène), Serge Kovacs (Serge), Brigitte Perrier (Brigitte), Eliette Demay (Michèle), Marie Marc (Aunt Marie), Magali Vacher (Magali),
Maurice Pialat’s TV drama begins with a sense of familiarity; a soldier in what is clearly a French soldier’s uniform from World War I, traipsing across the fields to return to his home village. We have been there before; Edgar Reitz’s Heimat began the same way with a German soldier, but there the returnee was demobbed, the war was over and the series would become a chronicle of life for the next 60 years. La Maison des Bois takes place during and the immediate aftermath of World War I, but the difference is that Pialat, as one may expect from a director who had not long ago made L’Enfance Nue (whose young star Michel Terrazon reappears here),tells it from the point of view of a child. Not the French Heimat then, but more of a World War I variation of so many French stories of childhood or lost innocence over the course of a summer, only the summer here is rather several seasons reduced to one figurative one.
Middle-aged Albert and Jeanne are a loving couple of farmers in a rural French village during World War I. Despite having children of their own, they take in various children from Paris who are sent by their parents because they are unable to do so with Paris so close to the front lines, fathers at the front and mothers barely affording to feed themselves. Maison centres around three such children – Bébért, Michel and Hervé – but it’s the latter who Pialat concentrates on the most. Hervé is a typical rascal, not entirely sympathetic in the initial exchanges, but who comes to love his new ‘parents’, their home, the locals and the way of life, allowing them to wander the countryside.
All of which would seem familiar. Think of Hubert’s later La Grande Chemin, but then imagine we saw an epilogue showing that little boy unhappy back with his mother. Imagine the lost summers of Eric Rohmer if we could then see what became of the protagonists; Pauline no longer at the beach, but back at school. The illusion is ruined, but here it’s essential, for it was a time of shattered illusions. Amongst the delightful scenes of Hervé and his friends in their paradise (Ravel’s ‘Three Pretty Birds in Paradise’ is not there by chance, the boys are the birds) are punctured the realities of hardship during World War I and the sense of community devastated. Think of the scene where Mother Jeanne gets the fateful news that her son has been killed in action, only for the armistice to be signed soon after. Then the gut-churning scene where for a second we believe it was a mistake, but of course she’s only imagining him through her bird coup. Everything about it seems familiar, right down to old Gravey as the marquis, amused by Hervé and doing his best to show dignified support to his kind tenants. The deliberately naturalistic unshowy acting may alienate those western audiences used to theatrical children, but it adds to the realism on show. Even the scenes with director Pialat making his traditional appearance as a schoolmaster are essential to the piece. And while all the kids are great, a special mention to little Vacher as Magali in the penultimate episode, head down, silent, making a new friend in Hervé only to then have to say her goodbyes. But a far worse goodbye is to come in the finale. Soon all Hervé will have is memories, mementos that are, to him, like a croix de guerre.