Stéphane Brizé and Vincent Lindon are fast becoming the Scorsese and De Niro of French social realist cinema. Their latest effort, At War, depicts union workers involved in strike action and a fight for self-respect and dignity.
At War is a gripping leftist polemic about the plight of the working class when faced with drastic boardroom decisions, uncaring lawyers and shareholders looking to fill their boots as the ship sinks. The hypocrisy of those with money and livelihoods unaffected is crass and grossly patronising. The suits tell the strikers they can simply up sticks to secure new jobs or that they’re too dumb and uneducated to understand how the real world works.
The former line recalls Thatcherite goon Norman Tebbit’s suggestion those on the dole should “get on their bikes” to look for employment. But At War isn’t some one-note or cartoonish I, Daniel Blake rant against the system, it’s a far more nuanced drama fronted by another sterling performance by Lindon, who disappears completely into his role as chief strike leader and could earn him another Best Actor award after his 2015 win for The Measure of a Man.
The opening on-screen quote by Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht sets the tone of the film perfectly: “He who fights, can lose. He who doesn’t fight, has already lost.” The quotation manages to perform two canny dramatic functions: be stirring and carrying more than a hint of fatalism. To fight is to commit to a course of action, but the resolving of that action is far from assured. The union members also have to contend with scabs – though their side of the argument is allowed to be heard and is entirely understandable. They were promised a swift resolution, but the struggle has taken too long, plus they have kids to feed and mortgages to pay. Laurent (Lindon) is like a general on the field of combat, always attempting to inspire his platoon with impassioned speeches, always leading the charge.
The film is almost entirely focused on debates and testy meetings inside boardrooms, factory floors or outside the gates. Brizé masterfully directs these scenes with predominantly handheld camera, shallow focus and medium shots, all designed to keep the tension constant and riveting. The music, too, blasts with foghorn intensity and occasionally uses pounding drums to further evoke the sense of warfare. Just when Laurent and his team feel like they’re getting somewhere, the French propensity for the absurd and physically violent – this is a country which thinks nothing of kidnapping company directors and holding them to random – comes to the fore, disaster strikes and a sacrificial act demanded.
The final moments veer too far towards the melodramatic, especially when the rest of the movie has exhibited a preference for the intellectual powers of argument, logic and reason, however the sense of desperation and accompanying symbolism is tragically potent. For the working man is always the preferred burnt offering to shifting ‘market realities’ and chief victim to modernisation of labour. As Ed Pickford’s The Workers’ Song so bluntly put it: “We’re the first ones to starve, the first ones to die…”
The 71st Cannes Film Festival takes place from 8-19 May.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn