WHAT IT’S ABOUT: The owners of a car parts plant in southwestern France make an offer to its workers. If the factory’s employees take on more working hours without a raise in pay, the plant will stay operational for the next five years. The workers agree because job opportunities are rare in their neck of the woods. However, due to declining profits, this agreement is ignored. Two years in, the company announces that the plant will be closed for good. The 1100 workers are offered measly severance packages and are facing a life with no prospects. Fronted by eloquent Laurent, of icy charisma, who is a protest leader by day, and an expectant grandpa by night, the workers start collective action, protesting and campaigning for negotiations. However, even when the place at the negotiating table is warranted, it soon turns out that the management of the conglomerate does not aspire to be reasonable.
WHO MADE IT: Film director Stéphane Brizé and actor Vincent Lindon, who stars as Laurent, are an award-winning duo. They have previously collaborated on three films, and the final of them, “The Measure of Man”, also centered around the struggles of the working man, won at Cannes. The majority of the roles in “At War” are played by non-professional actors from working-class backgrounds, for whom the events of the film are not an alien concept. For instance, Mélanie Rover, who appears as Mélanie, Laurent’s trusty sidekick, is a wielder with a temp agency. Before that, she worked for the French post and was unionized.
WHY DO WE CARE: Thematically, “At War” reminds me of Delacroix’s sweeping battle paintings. Mind you: it’s an aesthetic comparison, which is not rooted in the visual style. There’s not much in common between Delacroix’s combat chiaroscuro and the subdued tones of Brizé’s film. But the voluptuous humanity in conflict is what’s present in both. Even though the world’s governments, for some unknown reason, still engage in warfare, modern military action is getting further away from its corporal iterations. But protest is where bodies clash in laocoönian tangles. The events at the center of “At War” are not the most prominent embodiment of contemporary war campaigns. Something like Hong Kong protests would make a more fitting example for the metaphor. But the framing of the film’s narrative, the chessboard game of strategy between the workers and the management, and even the chosen title,—all point in the same direction. This is just one of the wars humanity is currently fighting against capitalism.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: While “gilets jaunes” documentaries are still on the cutting floor, it’s the right time to immerse ourselves into the subject of French labor. As France has an extensive history of collective action, the topic is rich and abundantly expressed in cinema. But “At War” is the freshest take on labor relations from the French standpoint and its validity doesn’t allow for any temporal distancing. The whole film is narrated not only through presence with the workers at the protests but also via various media. The final, shocking scenes that leave the viewer gut-punched materialize through a youtube video, and this further blurs the border between fiction and reality. “At War” methodically dissects the tragedy of being a worker in the 21st century, akin to the earlier melancholy accounts of the victims of industrialization. But despite it being a work of pretty depressing splendor, it’s also life-affirming in its own way. One can’t watch “At War” without admiring the resilience of humans as a species, and the nobility of spirit, as reflected in Laurent’s character.
At War (En Guerre), 2018
Director: Stephane Brizé
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