"This Is Our Land" may take place in France but could just as easily unfold in these United States at this particularly fraught and divisive moment in our national discourse. If current American movie audiences showed more of an appetite for this kind of reflective political drama, a stateside remake of this engrossing, disturbingly credible film would seem like a natural.
Despite its provocative politics, the movie, directed by the Belgian-born Lucas Belvaux, from a script he wrote with novelist Jérôme Leroy, is at heart a character study that's near-Hitchcockian in its portrayal of an innocent, average woman (an attractive blond, no less) who gets caught up — for both the right and wrong reasons — in a risky situation beyond her control and comprehension.
The pawn at the center of the film's burgeoning vortex is Pauline (Émilie Dequenne), a 30ish visiting nurse and single mother of two, living in a largely working-class town in northern France that's seen the kind of economic and demographic changes that, as in the U.S. and elsewhere, have given rise to — and a voice to — more populist (read: anti-immigrant) thinking.
One day, the likable Pauline is enlisted by her avuncular family doctor, Philippe Berthier (veteran French actor André Dussollier), to run in the local mayoral race. His reasoning: In these times, a person of the people, someone who understands her constituents' wants and needs first-hand, can best serve the community.
Pauline is flattered but uninterested, contending that she keeps out of politics and doesn't even vote. And, although she recognizes the socioeconomic shifts in her hometown, she's sympathetic, at least in spirit, to the communist leanings of her widower father, Jacques (Patrick Descamps), a retired laborer and union activist with health issues.
That makes the admittedly nonracist Pauline additionally hesitant to work with Berthier, a longtime supporter of nationalist causes who's now allied with the nascent Renewed Nation Party (RNP), which promotes itself as "a movement free of the left or right." But that's not quite truth in advertising.
Although the RNP aims for respectability, chooses its words "carefully" (it prefers "lowlifes" to "Arabs") and cloaks itself in love of country, it's a decidedly anti-immigrant, Islamophobic and incendiary group. Its slogan might as well be "Make France Great Again."
Still, Berthier and the RNP's galvanizing leader, Agnès Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), systematically persuade Pauline to jump into the race, seeing her as the sort of susceptible, malleable candidate they can shape to their will — and who just may not know what's hitting her. (The inclusion of Dorgelle, a thinly veiled take on France's right-wing National Front party head — and failed 2017 presidential candidate — Marine Le Pen, sparked major controversy upon the film's domestic release last year, just two months before the national election.)
It's fascinating — and chilling — to witness how Pauline slowly takes the bait, warming to the concept of entering politics and to the good she imagines she could do for those around her. Never mind that she has no idea what kind of programs the RNP wants her to push if elected, that Dorgelle's rally rhetoric sounds wildly jingoistic or that the party's chiefs and handlers are brashly re-engineering Pauline's home and personal life.
The latter includes Berthier's order that Pauline stop seeing hunky soccer coach Stéphane (Guillaume Gouix), a former high school boyfriend with whom she's recently rekindled a romance. That's because Stéphane, a.k.a. Stanko, has a violent, supremacist history that once knottily intersected with Berthier's more blatant fascistic past — and its potential unearthing could sink Pauline's electoral chances.
But little is Pauline aware of what Berthier — and the audience — also already knows: that the outwardly warm and engaging Stéphane is now secretly involved with a racist paramilitary group which provides shadow support and protection for the RNP. (That giant, neo-Nazi-like tattoo on Stéphane's bulked-up back should've been a dead giveaway to Pauline, but, hey, the woman's in love.)
Belvaux does a masterful job laying out the movie's many conflicts and obstacles and then ratcheting up the dramatic tension as the personal and political clash in a series of critical, increasingly gripping ways: Jacques disowns his daughter for betraying his long-held beliefs, Pauline becomes a pariah to neighborhood immigrants (including one of her patients) and equality advocates, RNP leadership denies Pauline a (figurative and literal) voice in the campaign and an unwitting Pauline must grapple with Stéphane's self-imposed exit from her life.
"This Is Our Land" emerges as a vital portrait of political machination, human duality, the power of fear-mongering and how people can reflexively divide into "us and them."
"This Is Our Land"
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica