By Jess Lomas
July 2, 2014
In some ways, Belle & Sebastian feels like Lassie meets The Sound of Music; at other times, the absurdity of the plot conjures memories of Charlie the Wonder Dog (for fans of The Late Show’s ongoing sketch starring the late Bud Tingwell). It’s at once sweet and endearing before tumbling into a cheap family drama where good versus evil plays out in front of the picturesque French Alps. Despite that unevenness, there’s something magical about this feature that captures your imagination.
Based on the 1965 French television series (itself inspired by a novel), Belle & Sebastian, set in 1943, tells of an unlikely friendship between boy and mutt. Six-year-old Sebastian (Félix Bossuet) lives in a small mountain village with grandfather Cesar (Tchéky Karyo) and aunt Angelina (Margaux Chatelier). Sebastian’s mother is “living in America,” according to Cesar, who we soon discover is hiding the truth about her behind the bottle of brandy he consumes each day.
As the Second World War plays out in the distance, German troops are stationed in the town to monitor and foil any illegal crossings of Jews from France into Switzerland. While they remain largely faceless throughout the film, Lieutenant Peter (Andreas Pietschmann) takes a particular liking to Angelina, much to the irritation of Angelina’s boyfriend, Doctor Guillaume (Dimitri Storoge). When a mysterious “beast” maims and kills local livestock, Cesar and the other farmers hunt to destroy it. Before they can raise their guns, Sebastian has befriended the culprit, a large dog christened Belle, who despite past mistreatment trusts the young boy.
While director Nicolas Vanier succeeds in beautifully capturing the stunning landscape, the same cannot be said for the Nazi subplot. One can imagine a young audience enjoying the opening half of the movie only to lose interest as the narrative takes a decidedly mature and morose turn. Sebastian is played impressively by Bossuet given his age, and the quiet moments between he and Belle are handled masterfully by Vanier, subconsciously manipulating you in preparation for some of the picture’s tense closing scenes. It is at this point that you realise the level of investment you have in Belle & Sebastian, a tale of innocence and companionship that is thankfully nowhere near as traumatic as Old Yeller.
Belle & Sebastian arrives in Australian cinemas July 3, 2014.