2018 in Review: En Guerre (Stéphane Brizé)


En Guerre (At War)

Director: Stéphane Brizé

Country: France

In 1972, Jean-Luc Godard at the height of his “Dziga Vertov Group” phase with collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin, made Tout Va Bien, a film about a group of striking factory workers taking the battle to their corporate bosses and the manner in which the media covers those events. Forty-six years later, Stéphane Brizé has made a film with the same premise, starring Vincent Lindon as the main instigator and tireless leader of the workers’ efforts to hold the multi-national corporation who have closed down their factory after reneging on promises made to the workers to some accountability. There however the similarity ends, for the comparison between Godard and Brizé serves only to show how cinematic means can lead to completely different results even when tackling the same subject matter.

Where Godard’s film was characterised by Brechtian reflexivity and anti-realist moments of fourth-wall breaking, Brizé insists on densely detailed documentary-style realism. Much of En Guerre is taken up by discussions and debates, between the workers and their bosses, between workers and the lawyers and politicians acting as go-betweens, and amongst the workers themselves. These discussion scenes feel so true to life that they become gripping, and we can only come to the conclusion that Brizé has taken a leaf out of the great Peter Watkins’ book and let his actors (all of whom are non-professionals with the exception of Lindon, and essentially playing a role they themselves have knowledge of in their own lives) not simply act but actually live out the dialogues and has moved his zoom-lens camera back to film them with the minimum of interference. This fly-on-the-wall approach works even in lengthy sequences because the actors and script are so good. As for Lindon, so believable as a blue-collar labour union leader is he in everything he does in the film, that he further cements his status as one of the greatest contemporary actors of French cinema.

Like Godard’s Tout Va Bien, and for that matter like the films of Peter Watkins (La Commune for example springs to mind), Brizé’s approach also takes in the media representation of the socio-political events on display. Apart from the discussion sequences, scenes of protests and demonstrations scored by propulsive electronic music, and a small number of scenes from Lindon’s character’s personal life (Brizé is clearly more interested in these workers’ relationship to their professional and social milieu), the main other element in the film is staged footage of TV news channels’ coverage of the increasingly violent labour struggle. Often, these scenes arrive onto the screen showing us something we had not seen ourselves, intruding suddenly to fill us in on what happened following an elliptical cut. These moments suggest how little of the bigger picture the endless stream of news media can actually fill us with, but it also has to be said that the final climax of En Guerre ends up taking this conclusion to an unnecessary extreme in a way I found implausible and quite manipulative. A shame, because without that ending this is one of the finest political films of 2018, a multifaceted portrayal of the continuing legacy of class struggle between workers, robbed of the right to a wage, who only want their voices heard and powerful corporations able to do what they wish with impunity in the name of profits.