André Téchiné's beautifully nuanced, immutably sad drama Strayed begins and ends at war. In a prologue, he introduces us to Odile (Emmanuelle Béart), a French war widow already (it's only 1940) who joins a long line of others in an exodus from Paris with her two children, the plucky 13-year-old Philippe and the impishly pre-teen Cathy. They've reached the countryside, and so have the German warplanes: First a line of bullets cuts through the throng, and then, from low-flying planes, half a dozen bombs travel their short distance to earth and explode precisely on the backs of the people cowering in the grass.
But Strayed is not a war movie, and soon Téchiné (Wild Reeds) zeroes in on his target: The family happens across Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), a lanky 17-year-old with a crewcut and a survivalist's attitude that clearly predates the war. Where the well-taught Philippe approaches strangers with curiosity and kindness, the emotionally scarred Yvan trusts no one. Still, in his loneliness, he leads the family to safety when he discovers an abandoned country house, where they all hole up until the war again intervenes.
The English title of Téchiné's film refers more to Odile, who admits that she's aberrantly "gone off the rail" when she separates from the others in an effort to save her family from the German barrage. But in French, this film is called Les í‰garés, which also means "the mislaid," and that refers to Yvan, who's a distant cousin to the eponymous lost lad in Louis Malle's superb Lacombe, Lucien. He's a social outcast, an orphan raised in an institution, as much animal as human in his behavior, like a puppy that's been abused: He steals from corpses, can't read, and makes up stories about his past, wearing the ruse of the fox. When he and Odile finally make desperate love in the dark of night, he lights a match because he's never seen a naked woman, and he turns her over for anal sex because that's all he knows how to do.
This is painful stuff, palpable in its lean emotions, and perfectly staged by Téchiné and his actors. The two young men seem to be especially important to him: Their personalities emerge slowly, and each gradually effects change in the other. All three of these kids are bright and alert but not unbelievably sage, and Téchiné finds lovely little parallels between them: Cathy's playful marriage proposal to her "prince" Yvan finds poignant counterbalance in Yvan's clumsy romantic outburst to Odile.
Most of Strayed takes place in a vaguely Brothers Grimm-like forest, in a gingerbread house made of brick and stone. This parable lasts as long as their isolation does. But when the outside world shows up again, Téchiné ends his story with a reality so ruthless that you'd almost rather have it be another German air attack. In French, with subtitles.