Come What May (En Mai, Fais ce qu’il te plait) takes place against the backdrop of war, but it is not a war movie. The events depicted are based on the memories of director Christian Carion’s mother who, as a child growing up on a farm in the French countryside, fled with her family and the rest of the village as Nazi forces were approaching the border. Hundreds of thousands of people living in small farming communities across northern France abandoned their homes and journeyed south, by foot, bicycle, and horse-drawn wagon, in what became known as “the 1940 Exodus.”
Human relationships lie at the heart of the best films, and Carion (Farewell, Joyeux Noel, The Girl from Paris), who is known for his humanist approach to storytelling, excels at presenting the emotional connections that give this film its depth and emotional power. Crosscutting between storylines — interlocking journeys, all aiming for the same destination – allows Carion to draw a picture that is both intimate and universal, personal and historical.
We first meet German resistance fighter Hans (August Diehl), who evades the Gestapo and flees the country with his eight-year old son Max (Joshio Marlon). They slip into France where, pretending to be Belgian, Hans finds work as a field hand on the farm of village mayor Paul (Olivier Gourmet), whose wife Mado (Mathilde Seigner) runs the local bistro. When local gendarmes get wind of Hans’ true identity, they throw him into jail. Max is taken in and cared for by village schoolteacher Suzanne (Alice Isaaz)
As Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands fall, the community heeds Paul’s advice and heads south, wisely avoiding the main routes and sticking to back roads instead. In the chaos following the Wehrmacht’s’ actual invasion, Hans escapes from prison and sets off to find his son. Along the way he encounters Percy (Matthew Rhys), a Scottish captain whose unit has been decimated and who is trying to hook up with the retreating British army. Although wary of one another, Hans and Percy know their odds of survival are better together.
The cast is superb, with many stand-out performances, including Diehl, Rhys, Gourmet and Seigner. The love between Hans and his son, the maternal-child bond that develops between Max and the schoolteacher, the respect and friendship that grow between Hans and Percy are all beautifully and believably conveyed, but they are also expected in a story like this. The film’s most surprising and, in many ways moving, relationship turns out to be that of Paul and Mado, a long-married couple whose affection for one another is expressed in small gestures and subtle glances. It is rare to find such a mature and convincing portrait of love —and equality — among middle-aged adults.
Come What May benefits from a clear narrative and a strong sense of authenticity. The film was shot in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, where not only Carion’s mother but the director himself grew up on the family’s ancestral farm. His feel for the land is evident, as is his respect for his characters. He also inserts unexpected but welcome moments of humor — many involving a goose, a family pet, one assumes, whose head peeks out from a sack that is tied to the side of Paul’s horse-drawn wagon.
The film is beautifully shot by Pierre Cottereau, alternating between deep-focus wide shots that capture the beauty of the French countryside and equally deep focus close-ups and medium shots of the characters, which literally puts a human face on history. Shots are allowed to play out, whether static or in smooth camera moves. Hand-held is reserved for moments of intensity, such as Hans and Max’s escape from Germany, the slaughter of Percy’s unit inside an underground tunnel, and a cat and mouse game with two German scouts. A wonderful sense of pacing keeps the story constantly moving forward, while Ennio Morricone’s musical score never overpowers the images. Wisely, many scenes play out without any musical accompaniment.