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WILD LIFE (Vie Sauvage) – BFI London Film Festival 2014

October 17, 2014

FestivalsFilm + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


More fugitives-on-the-run than a Kramer vs Kramer-style custody battle, Cedric Kahn’s Wild Life (Vie Sauvage) which is based on true events, recounts the story of a father who is repulsed by the consumer-driven capitalist society of France and fed up with the French legal system and so kidnaps two of his children to begin a life in the wild, off the grid.

The film opens with the children’s mother, Nora (Céline Sallette) escaping the grasp of the father and taking her children on a voyage to her parents’ home. Realizing that the legal system favours the mother by default in custody battles, Paco, phenomenally played with an admirable commitment by Mathieu Kassovitz (aka, the dreamboat in Amelie, or now a ponytailed nomad who doesn’t look like he washes too much), takes matters into his own hands.

Through flashbacks we see how Nora fell out of love with the hippie life and the accompanying dreadlocks, yet how Paco remained steadfast, putting them and their three children on a collision course.

Ignoring the media hysteria around the ten-year kidnapping – never once are TV news reports of the story shown, only bits and pieces from newspaper appeals – Kahn throws the kidnapping into Paco’s point-of-view. However, the man is neither made into a hero nor romanticized, but instead develops into a deeply flawed individual.

The focus remains solely on Paco and his two children (the eldest stays behind with his mother who had him with another man) whose upbringings are anything but typical. Forced to lie that their mother is dead, Orkyesa and Tsali are dumped into a series of thought-out backstories to keep their father out of the police’s hands. However, the inevitable teenage rebellion is hard to suppress, even when you’re not a part of the ‘system’.

It turns the tables on normal teenage years, as instead of his children wanting to rebel and take up a bohemian life as most do, they instead yearn for a more normal stable life, with friends and the teenage romance that follows. Paco even scolds his children for shaving – when most parents would look disapprovingly on unruly facial hair.

There is no judgment passed on the nomadic bohemian lifestyle presented nor is there sentimental glamourization used to cover up the hardships of this situation – the only moment of slightly overdone melodrama takes place near the climax of the film with the introduction of a moving classical orchestral piece as things begin to unravel for Paco.

The thought-provoking film also raises issues that will keep the conversation going after the credits. Paco’s determination to raise his kids without interference from society propels questions on whether there is a proper way to bring up your children.


When asked if his children have a schooling education, Paco steadfastly reminds them that while education is mandatory by law, schooling is not, and his knowledge of the world will serve them much more than a school diploma that will only leave them serving in a fast-food restaurant. There are also the conversations on family values and custody-battles that are more than relevant for many today.

The one shame is that Céline Sallette is given too little time as the mother, for the promising actress she is. Rarely dull and wholly engaging, Wild Life keeps a steely neutral take on the delicate true story, a feat in itself, and delivers a carefully constructed and unconventional take on the custody-battle film.

Oliver Smith