Review: Stéphane Brizé’s French drama ‘At War’ takes up the gritty cry of the working class
Vibrating with the plight of the economy’s least-protected workers, French filmmaker Stéphane Brizé’s “At War (En Guerre),” with frequent star Vincent Lindon as a fiery union man, offers up a labor-versus-management saga with a lot of the grit and outrage we’ve come to expect from these types of righteously argued narratives (“Norma Rae”). But inside its pulsing directness is a dispiriting verisimilitude about how wide the chasm has gotten, and whose hand is strongest.
Depicting the struggle of an auto parts workforce to reverse an announced plant closure in a depressed French town, Brizé’s movie, like a Gallic Ken Loach missive, lines up a series of verité-style heated confrontations between passionate union reps and indifferent company mouthpieces or ineffectual government types. The exchanges address a central conundrum in today’s global marketplace: Even when business is booming, and politicians are on your side, the jobs keep going away.
The fictional scenario Brizé and co-writer Olivier Gorce have devised won’t surprise anyone familiar with news stories like GM’s headline-grabbing shutdown this year of its Lordstown, Ohio, factory. In “At War,” what rubs the workers raw about the impending loss of their livelihoods is that two years prior, they’d entered into a negotiated agreement with the company — a German-owned outfit called Perrin Industries — that would keep their jobs secure for five years in return for concessions (longer workdays for no extra compensation) that amounted to more than 500,000 hours of free labor. Yet even with millions in profits and government subsidies, the company — citing “market reality” and its industry’s “non-competitiveness” — opted to close the plant anyway. (GM similarly shuttered Lordstown after extracting similar giveaways from its dedicated workforce and American taxpayers.)
With a production strike as the leaping-off point, “At War” toggles between closed-door meetings in which the workers, led by factory employee Laurent (Lindon), righteously make their case in the hopes of applying public pressure, and outdoor clashes — with police and company reps — that get turned into bite-sized news items that invariably remove all complexity from reporting of the negotiations, and paint the workers as reckless agitators more than victims. And when the talks provide little meaningful relief, Laurent finds his attention split between morally standing firm against a promise-breaking company’s heartlessness, and a growing dissent on his own side over tactics and goals.
As sure as your sympathies lie with the workers, Lindon’s brusque authenticity burnishes the emotional pull of the intensely played, often fruitless back-and-forths with political appointees and stoic suits. Returning to the milieu of wage-earning distress he so winningly evinced for Brizé in their last joint effort, the 2016 Dardennes-esque character study of a laid-off worker, “Measure of a Man,” Lindon doesn’t have as fleshed out a character this time around — snippets of Laurent’s home life feel more like breathers between verbal skirmishes than illuminating shadings. But there’s no denying how well he fits in with the non-professional cast around him, even if he’s mostly there to give cri de coeur power to a victimized class’s fervently voiced position. The tragedy is when Laurent also has to remind those in his ranks who’d happily concede for a heftier severance package that such unwillingness to fight, to settle for a onetime payday over a hard-won livelihood, gives the side of greed “no worries.”
With a driving semi-electric score by Bertrand Blessing that seems equal parts factory heartbeat and mechanized anxiety, and an immediacy to Eric Dumont’s cinematography that skirts ersatz restlessness, “At War” has plenty of cinematic energy for a movie devoted primarily to people shouting at, but mostly past, each other. The movie year has already given us one forceful, humane and sad classic of rights-driven rhetoric, Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo.” Brizé’s bid for political urgency may not be as complete a work in terms of character richness and scope, but it’s a worthy companion piece in the effort to make films in a turbulent time that speak the truth about the plagued dignity of everyday people.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: Starts July 26, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles
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