Belle and Sebastian is a remake of the much-loved 1960s French TV series in which a six-year-old boy befriends a wild mountain dog on the pastoral slopes of the French Alps. Since this version incorporates an additional story of Jewish fugitives attempting to cross the border into neutral Switzerland, the film comes off like a mixture of The Adventures of Milo and Otis and Renoir’s The Grand Illusion. And somehow, surprisingly, this works.
Sebastian (Félix Bossuet) lives in a village nestled amongst the Alps near the Swiss-French border with his father César (Tchéky Karyo) and his cousin Angélina (Margaux Chatelier). Spending apparently no time at school, Sebastian wanders the mountainous countryside alone as no six-year-old should, especially once word spreads that a wild beast has been spotted in the vicinity attacking men and sheep alike. On one of his jaunts Sebastian encounters said beast that turns out to be an enormous Pyrenean Mountain Dog. He names her Belle and the two quickly become firm friends, romping and frolicking about in the summery alpine splendour or having noticeably one-sided conversations. With the villagers convinced Belle is the culprit behind the attacks, Sebastian must keep their interspecies friendship a secret.
It being the height of World War Two in German-occupied France, carloads of Nazis soon roll into town with the intention of preventing Jewish refugees from reaching Switzerland. They are led by Lieutenant Peter (Andreas Pietschmann), an officer with a coldly mask-like face who becomes enamoured of Angélina and suspects the dashing Doctor Guillaume (Dimitri Storoge) of leading the fugitives through the mountains. When Belle attacks a German soldier for manhandling Sebastian, the mayor promises to hunt her down, and young Sebastian finds himself caught between his beloved canine companion and pretty much every adult he knows who wants to shoot her to pieces.
Despite being a family-oriented film, Belle and Sebastian doesn’t speak down to children who will enjoy the adventures of an intrepid boy pitted against the world, nor will it bore adults who will enjoy the nostalgia and stunning setting of the film that’s such a large part of its appeal. Beginning in summer with panoramic shots of Sebastian and César traipsing about the sun-drenched valleys and ridges of the Alps, the seasons roll on as if reflecting the gravity of what befalls Sebastian’s village, with the climax of the film occurring in winter when every building is buried in snow and wolves appear out of the wilderness.
The film is a perfect advert for French tourism, painting an absurdly lovely picture of France and its people. While Sebastian and Belle gambol about on the grass in summer and the deep snow in winter, the honest, kind-hearted adults of this village community get on with their lives despite the war. However, even with the presence of the German soldiers and Jewish refugees, it never feels as if the war is a particularly serious occurrence for Sebastian’s village. But as this is, after all, a family film, there’s not much point dissecting the morality and behaviour of its characters whose country has been overrun by the enemy. Rather than detracting from the story, the remoteness of the characters from the war ends up giving this portrait of simple rustic life an even more sepia-tinted glow.
As adventure stories about young children go, it’s worth noting this one takes the cake in terms of the dangerous situations its pint-sized protagonist is allowed into unsupervised. Not only does he roam about the steep precipices of the surrounding valleys by himself, but his father César seems largely unperturbed by his suspicion that Sebastian has befriended what he believes to be a feral guard dog beaten into insanity by its previous owner. Even more concerning (and amusing) is a scene in which Doctor Guillaume treats a sick Belle. Doctor Guillaume, also convinced Belle is a monster, takes one worried look at the dog from across the room and hands Sebastian a huge antique syringe. “She won’t let me anywhere near her,” the doctor tells Sebastian, before looking on contentedly as a six-year-old with no medical training jabs a colossal needle into a wounded dog the size of a lion.
That said, there is something reassuringly old-fashioned to the film and, in particular, the attitude of the older characters to Sebastian, an attitude of fond tolerance free of the mollycoddling many children are subjected to today. It’s this that makes the film as charming as it is. It’s a hit of nostalgia and an innocent tale of childhood set against a beautiful backdrop.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Belle & Sebastian was on a limited release throughout Australia