By Julia Ricci
It can be all too easy for a film involving a dog to fall into saccharine and even traumatizing territory (see: Marley and Me, Old Yeller), but France’s Belle and Sebastian (2013) is a refreshing exception. Belle and Sebastian is a well-crafted family movie about a friendship between a boy and his dog in the vein of Lassie and classic live-action Disney films, evoking an old-world charm lacking in most contemporary cinema.
Based on Cécile Aubry’s children’s book and beloved 1960s French television series of the same name, the film follows the relationship between a motherless young boy, Sebastian (Félix Bossuet), and an abused, stray Pyrenean Mountain Dog he finds in the mountains. The canine, which he later names Belle, is known as “the beast” among the villagers and is accused of killing the sheep of Sebastian’s elderly guardian, César (Tchéky Karyo). Sebastian believes Belle is innocent, however, and he befriends her and keeps her presence a secret.
In a deviation from the original material, screenwriters Juliette Sales and Fabien Suarez set the film in 1943 to include a key storyline involving Nazi troops attempting to stop the smuggling of Jewish refugees to Switzerland. One might view this aspect of the story as a damper on the boy-and-his-dog friendship story, but Sales and Suarez do a fine job of addressing the general themes of World War II in a manner appropriate for younger viewers. Although this film contains a few minor plot holes regarding the motives of the characters involved, the overall narrative is still solid and the film’s charm is enough to detract from the issue.
Belle and Sebastian was filmed on location in France, and the Alpine hills are truly alive in Eric Guichard’s breathtaking cinematography; the shots of the gorgeous mountain vistas would make Robert Wise green with envy. Just as we begin to get comfortable with the serene landscape, however, the film is quick to remind us of the threatening forces of nature with several on-the-edge-of-your-seat moments that become even more stomach-churning upon learning that most of the stunts are, in fact, real.
Director Nicolas Vanier’s background in wildlife documentaries may be evident in the film’s numerous glimpses of animal life in the Alps, but the actors’ performances also reveal his aptitude for helming narrative features. The acting is great across the board, especially by then-seven-year-old newcomer Bossuet as the titular Sebastian. He naturally captures the character’s adventurous spirit and quiet nature and has a good rapport with the three dogs that play Belle, who are almost as talented as their human costars. The supporting players also give strong performances, particularly Andreas Pietschmann as the Nazi lieutenant; his eyes alone are chill inducing, but they display a greater depth in his character that cannot be conveyed through dialogue. There’s even a cameo from Mehdi El Glaoui, who played Sebastian in the original TV series, as the ill-tempered lumberman who shares information about “the beast” with young Sebastian.
Belle and Sebastian could have easily been made into a film decades ago, but perhaps its is better that it has taken nearly 50 years for the story to hit the big screen. The film has old-world populist charm without being too sappy, a characteristic rarely seen in today’s cinema. Although it is set during a dark time in world history, the heart of the story is the bond between a boy and his canine companion and the lessons of friendship, kindness, and trust, making the film perfect for family viewing.
Belle and Sebastian is in French with English subtitles and contains mild violence and thematic material. A release date has not yet been set in the United States.