Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Nicholas Vanier
Stars: Felix Bossuet, Tcheky Karyo, Dimitri Storoge, Andreas Pietschmann, Margaux Chatelier, Urbain Cancelier, Mehdi, Paloma Palma, Jan Oliver Schroeder, Tom Sommerlatte, Karine Androver, Loic Varraut.
I didn’t quite know what to expect from this film apart from the fact that it was another tale of boy and his dog. But Belle And Sebastian proves to be so much more. There are a number of subplots woven through out the story, but director Nicholas Vanier (The Last Trapper, etc) manages to tie them all up neatly and satisfactorily by the end. If you shed tears at films about boys and their dogs, like Old Yeller, Greyfriar’s Bobby and even Lassie Come Home, then you will probably also tear up at this wonderful feel good French drama.
Belle And Sebastian is set in the small village of Saint Martin, situated in the picturesque French Alps in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of the country, but this beautiful and moving drama is not just a simple tale of a boy and his dog. The film is based on the children’s book written by Cecile Aubrey, and the popular 1965 French tv series, but screenwriters Juliette Sales (Nobody Else But You, etc) and Fabien Suarez (the animated Rock The Boat, etc) have taken a few liberties with the original source, and suffused the material with a strong sentimental streak that is effective.
Sebastian (played by newcomer Felix Bossuet) lives with his alcoholic adoptive grandfather Cesar (Tcheky Karyo, from Bad Boys, etc), a sheep farmer who lives on a remote farm in the hills. Sebastian has been told that his mother is in America, a far off land, and he wonders when she will return to look after him. Cesar is hiding a darker reality from the boy to protect him until he thinks he is ready to handle the truth.
But some wild beast is mysteriously killing sheep, and has managed to elude the best efforts of hunting parties to track it down. Sebastian spends a lot of his time roaming about the rugged hills, and one day stumbles across a mangy looking dog. He realises that this must be the feared sheep killing “beast”, but instead of a feral animal he discovers that the Pyrenean mountain dog has been abused and mistreated by its former master. A nice friendship develops between the two as well as a strong bond of trust. Sebastian cares for the dog, cleans it up, rechristens it Belle, and hides it from Cesar and the villagers.
While Sebastian hides Belle from the locals there are a number of other events happening within the small village. Local vet Doctor Guillaume (Dimitri Storoge) is leading Jewish refugees over a treacherous mountain pass to the safety of Switzerland. And the pretty town baker, Sebastian’s aunt Angelina (Margaux Chatelier, from Paris-Manhattan, etc), fends off the advances of Lieutenant Peter (Andreas Pietschmann), who has been sent to the village to use whatever means necessary to track down Jewish refugees and those people who may be smuggling them to safety. But Lieutenant Peter turns out to be a sympathetic Nazi, which is something you don’t see very often.
There is also a more poignant element to the film when Belle is injured and Sebastian seeks help. And the climactic scenes, a mountain crossing during a fierce snow storm, brings a frisson of tension to the material.
Newcomer Bossuet is a real find as Sebastian, and even though this is his first film appearance he has a natural screen presence, an endearing innocence, engaging curiosity and vulnerability. Veteran Karyo is also great as his grandfather, a gruff and simple farmer who also has more depth than we first expect. Pietschmann brings a nice ambiguity to his role as the essentially decent German officer.
Director Vanier brings his documentary background to the look and feel of the film. Belle And Sebastian looks gorgeous, thanks to veteran Eric Guichard’s breathtaking cinematography of the French Alps and the beautiful, snow covered landscapes. This is a decidedly feel good film about innocence, friendship, hope and heroism, which has broad appeal for all ages. Bring some tissues!
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