Overly decorous but occasionally gripping, Fanny’s Journey uncovers yet another rock in the endless rubble of World War II cinema, this time dramatizing a fraught escape from Vichy France through Nazi strongholds toward the safety of the Swiss border. The trekkers are children, which sets the fact-based movie apart from fellow period pieces and lends it an unimpeachable poignancy.
At the same time, by turning its focus away from the death camps, it shields us from some of the Third Reich’s most inhuman atrocities. Fanny’s Journey is not particularly difficult to watch, and it could easily wind up on yeshiva curricula. Like carrots, it’s a film that is fundamentally good for you — visual and narrative nutrition for the soul, if you seek that sort of thing.
Co-writer/director Lola Doillon opens her film on a teary farewell in 1943, as the Jewish mother of Fanny (Léonie Souchaud) and her younger sister Erika (Fantine Hardin) deposits her children on the steps of the Oeuvre de Sécours aux Enfants (OSE), a humanitarian organization that sheltered children during occupied France. Already, the oppressive musical score is too much, but the reality that this woman, likely to be rounded up in days or hours, may never see her children again is one few directorial embellishments can diminish.
Fanny and Erika’s safe haven in short-lived. When word spreads that the OSE is harboring Jewish children, the kids’ only response is to flee to safer ground under the guidance of the OSE’s administrator, Madame Forman — a composite character, portrayed with a mix of regal severity and pinpoint cunning by Cécile de France. What results is single-minded survival story set on a kind of Underground Railroad, with Fanny and her coterie of refugees stealing aboard freight trains, dodging Gestapo and assuming false identities to skirt the interrogations of swastika-wearing functionaries. Often, they’re herded like so much livestock — or border-crossing immigrants awaiting their coyote.
Fanny’s Journey delivers the expected notes of rage and injustice, spotlighting the arbitrariness and absurdity of genocide by birth certificate. At one point, one of these children, born to a Jewish parent but with little understanding of religion, suggests “so let’s not be Jewish” as a solution to their problem. Frankly, in our own age of presidentially directed intolerance, it’s hard to avoid the past-is-prologue reminders in any film about historical fascism.
Yet the obviousness of Doillon’s hand can be as thick as a French potage. Like her husband, director Cedric Klapisch (L’Auberge Espagnole), she lands on the commercial, not the art-house, side of moviemaking, and thus we’re treated to the leaden symbolism of soldiers’ jackboots trampling on a child’s teddy bear as they raid a shelter, or the climactic treacle of a certain important object guiding the characters’ path like a hokey beacon.
Sentimentalist though she may be, Doillon leaves room for at least a pair of surprisingly bold scenes, one involving a dark nocturnal vision and the other a fearless exchange with a firearm in a locked room. But Fanny’s Journey mostly overcomes its familiar rhythms on the strength of its central performances. Doillon’s direction of child actors is her unalloyed virtue, with her pint-sized cast delivering the sort of affectless performances that are almost exclusive the privilege of the unschooled and unjaded.
As Fanny, the girl thrust into becoming the de facto parent of her mobile orphanage, Souchaud is pragmatic and reckless, boundlessly curious and knowingly skeptical, with an endless reservoir of empathy. Her ensemble is just as pure and multifaceted. The child actors are permitted, even in a film as grave as this, comic relief that feels improvised — just kids being kids — and it’s a pleasure to watch.
FANNY’S JOURNEY. Cast: Léonie Souchaud, Cécile de France, Fantine Harduin, Juliane Leporeau; Director: Lola Doillon; in French with English subtitles; Distributor: Menemsha; Now playing at Movies of Lake Worth, Movies of Delray, Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, and the Last Picture Show at Tamarac.
Fanny Ben-Ami, now 86, will be at the Movies of Delray today at 12:30, 3 and 5:20, and at Living Room Theaters at 7:35. Tomorrow she comes to the Movies at Lake Worth at 12:30, 3, and 5:20, and at Living Room Theaters at 7:35. On Monday, she is at the Movies of Delray for the 3 and 5:20 showings of this film.