(This review of the film “Belle and Sebastian” appeared in Australian Jewish News on 3 July 2014.)
The iconic French children’s story “Belle and Sebastian” has added a fascinating sub-theme of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis into Switzerland during the Second World War in its new film version. Originally entitled Belle et Sébastien in French, it first started life in 1965 as a children’s novel by French film actress and author Cecile Aubry. The book was first adapted into a French TV series in the late 1960s and proved so popular that it was dubbed into English and shown on the BBC in the UK. It even provided the inspiration for the Scottish “indie” band “Belle and Sebastian”.
The new film version resets the action to 1943. Set in the French Alps near the French-Swiss border, it tells the story of the friendship between a young French boy and a wild dog, who local villagers suspect of killing their local sheep. As a parallel story, local Nazi soldiers are trying to close down an escape route of Jewish refugees going over the mountains to Switzerland. The film is beautifully shot in the French mountain high country, with excellent acting by Felix Boussuet as the young Sebastian, the experienced Tcheky Karyo as Sebastian’s adopted grandfather and some astonishing Pyrenean Mountain Dogs playing Belle.
It’s a warm-hearted story aimed at family viewing (opening here in Australia in time for the winter school holidays), and the adaptation’s addition of the Jewish refugee sub-plot fits neatly into the heroic story of Belle and Sebastian. It’s also a dog-lover’s delight, complete with lots of interesting secondary village characters. “Belle and Sebastian” was the second highest-grossing film in France last year, and premiered in Australia at the French Film Festival in March.