The feel-good line-up of the 2018 French Film Festival glossed over the social and political state of France, again, writes Dr Evan Jones.
Give me an escape at the movies, please
THIS YEAR'S Alliance Française French Film Festival (FFF), celebrated in various cities around Australia from February to April, included Michel Hazanavicius’ Le Redoutable (Redoubtable), a biopic of film director Jean-Luc Godard and his wife and partner Anne Wiazemsky.
In the film, two characters separately say to Godard, a line to the effect of:
"The world is endlessly grim; I don’t want to go to the cinema and confront more of the same — give me an escape."
To which, the unrepentant Godard retorted: bah to “the dictatorship of sentiment”.
Godard has friends in the world of music. The early proponents of serialism in composition were adamant that their contribution to musical revolution was not merely right but imperative, inevitable. If the audience didn’t follow, it was their loss.
The orientation of Godard’s two detractors could be the leitmotif of French film festivals in Australia. One has to get bums on seats, after all. Feel-good movies are the standard fare — this year, L’école buissonière (The School of Life), La mélodie (Orchestra Class) and, of course, Belle & Sebastien revisited. Personal dramas were also endless on the list.
Post-1968, Godard was far from inflexible, making films in diverse genres. The hard-line serialist composers remained purists and lost the music-loving audience. But are the FFF organisers a little too weak-kneed, soppy, sentimentalist?
Film as a social and political medium
I always want to be informed and educated on as many occasions as possible, even if it’s a painful experience — as I found when writing on the 2017 FFF.
Film has a huge potential as a social and political medium. Hollywood knows it, mostly by strategically avoiding it but perennially by abusing it — consider the blacklist of the early Cold War period, the naked propaganda of films such as Blackhawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty, and the wilful distortions exhibited in The Post.
The Soviet censors existed because of it. Think of Eisenstein’s monumental Ivan the Terrible. The films being too close to the bone of truth, Stalin ensured that part two was banned and the planned third part was still-born. Much earlier, Eisenstein had to dramatically re-cut October on the demand of the ascendant Stalin.
The marvellous 1967 film Commissar by Aleksandr Askoldov is representative; it was suppressed and its fledgeling director dismissed from the industry. Released only after the demise of the Soviet Union, Askoldov and the lead actors were fortunately still around to tell the story of the film’s treatment and its significance.
There is also the huge potential power of the documentary which can go straight for the jugular of the matter. Whoever introduced the documentary into FFF deserves credit — there have been some gems in previous years. This year’s fare was miserable by my criteria — two documentaries and neither are set in France. France has a vibrant documentary-making tradition, so there is no lack of choice.
The FFF features talent from France but one has to work hard to obtain insight into France itself.
The prefatory note in the program guide from the current French Ambassador claims that French cinema '... has reformed and adapted itself to a globalised economy'. Meaning? A necessity to homogenise the product? This is indirectly derogatory to the French cinema of pre-reform eras, which globalised quality of its own accord. Speaking of which, the Sydney Alliance Française library’s holding of French film classics is abysmal.
This year’s Festival director also claims:
'Courage, generosity, equality and team spirit are all strong recurring themes [in the 2018 offerings] that show the unyielding spirit of unity in France today.'
What? There is no “spirit of unity” in France today. Emmanuel Macron, widely called “President of the Rich”, is the political embodiment of the spirit of disunity. Given the reality, one can well understand the need for fictional diversion.
Last year, I mentioned François Ruffin’s 2016 documentary Merci Patron! (Thanks Boss!), evidently seen as not worthy of showing by the Australian FFF crowd. The documentary centres on a couple who were retrenched when the clothing factory they worked in was closed by its boss, the obscenely rich Bernard Arnault. What could be more French than Arnault’s LVMH?
Just recently, Forbes disclosed that the Arnault came in not merely as the wealthiest French person, but the fourth richest in the world. At the time, Forbes named 40 French billionaires in their world-ranking list. Their escalating fortunes have been helped along by President Macron’s emasculation of France’s wealth tax, coupled with his ongoing dismantling of worker protections.
Arnault is also a major shareholder in the giant supermarket chain Carrefour. With Carrefour's CEO known for his scorched earth fanaticism and the foreshadowing of a retrenchment of 5,000 of their employees, Merci Patron! remains as relevant as ever.
The Film Festival comes partly to the party
There are a handful of films in this year’s FFF that do cater to the politically and socially minded. On this list are notably:
- 120 Battements par Minute (120 BPM) on the HIV crisis in the early 1990s
- Les hommes du feu (The Brigade) on life among the rescue workers
- Prendre le large (Catch the Wind) on textile factory closure and job loss
- Numéro Une (Number One) that breaks down the glass ceiling in France’s corporate hierarchy
- Petit Paysan (Bloody Milk) detailing the hard luck on a family dairy farm
I saw all but the first and each was somewhere between good and powerful.
This is also a film about the glass ceiling, albeit off-camera. Claudel’s talents are undervalued in a man’s world, especially in sculpture where the substantial expenses make patronage essential. Claudel is later forced into and retained in an institution by bourgeois family members (for whom her personal rebellion is repugnant) against professional advice.
Scenes beyond the screen
Numéro Une involves the struggle for a gender-blind meritocracy at the top of the hierarchy of France’s largest corporations. It also involves a demonstration of skulduggery in battling over who is to be leveraged into the top job.
Our heroine’s rival for the job is supported by a king-maker with a long address book and a deep bag of dirty tricks. Fictional license merely to raise the viewer’s heartbeat, you ask? No — thinly veiled reality. Macron is himself a pure product of such king-makers.
Prendre le large and Les hommes du feu have important social issues as their subjects. No doubt, with the respective directors’ eyes on paying the bills, both have a feel-good ending. All the troubles in the world can be compensated by a feel-good ending. A musical composition full of dissonance will be redeemed by a soothing finale ending on the tonic. In these two films, the feel-good ending is genuine fiction.
One manifestation of this long-term economic deterioration has been the rise in the vote for the National Front in areas previously dominated by the French Communist and Socialist Parties — thus the sea of black in the electoral map for the 2017 Presidential elections.
The National Front is condemned in the mainstream media as being extreme right-wing and essentially racist, but the Front’s leader, Marine le Pen, was carried into the second round of the Presidential election as a reflection of the disgust of economically disenfranchised voters with the mainstream political parties.
Well, should any French film festival confront factory closures and their disastrous aftermath for local communities? Prendre le large also looks at what follows — displacement of production.
Our plucky heroine, who declined to take a redundancy package in favour of delocalisation herself, much to the horror of her bosses and peers, finds that everything has been degraded — wages, working conditions and so on. All goes downhill to the stage of local quasi-slave labour in the fields, save for a contrived salvation.
With this film, we're given two for the price of one — the symbiotic destruction of jobs and community in the “first world" and the creation of jobs in the “third world”, appallingly degraded production for the "first world".
Ouvrières du monde documents the 1998 closure by Levi Strauss of its factories in Belgium and France, and its brutal treatment of the 1,400 workers retrenched, in spite of the profitability of local operations. The company takes on huge debt to return it to sole ownership by family members and, coupled with competition from offshore production, pursues widespread factory closures in "first world" locations.
The documentary also covers the conditions of factories in Turkey and Indonesia where the production was relocated, interviewing representative workers at those factories. The lives of the sacked European workers and the employed, but heavily exploited, Turkish and Indonesian workers are juxtaposed.
The bargaining power of the former cohort, gradually acquired over a century, is abolished in the face of the brutally enforced absence of bargaining power for the latter cohort. Such are the benefits to wage labour of the globalised economy.
Les hommes du feu is a gutsy film of yet another glass ceiling battle in the very masculine world of the fire and rescue service, in the context of highly strung workdays responding to endless emergency calls. Another feel-good ending, however.
The highly strung workdays are real. While Australian firefighters fight fires, French “firefighters” are the complete emergency workers. 2015 figures disclose that the firefighters made 4,453,300 sorties — that's 12,200 per day. Only 7% of the actions were for fires whereas 76% were for help and rescue. Of the 247,000 personnel, 22% were professionals or military, whereas 78% were volunteers. Volunteers, in spite of considerable formal training, do it for love in the face of derisory pay and conditions.
The typical fireman has been a white male with little formal education, though he has acquired a wage and a status beyond the expectations of his class origins. But the work is essentially traumatic. As well as the pressure of firefighting, they are on the front line of all domestic crises, especially among least favoured groups of the population.
For a vital public service, the French fire and rescue service has suffered long-term cuts in funding, especially over the last 20 years. In the film, the team feel pressured under the threat of the closure of their station due to enforced rationalisations. In real life, overall numbers have been reduced.
Much direct funding comes from the Department and the Commune, whose own funding depends heavily on the central state, increasingly greedily. Between 2000 and 2013, 850 of the total 7,000 fire stations were closed.
President at the time, François Hollande, made heavy cuts to the public service and, for much of that time, the wretched Emmanuel Macron was Hollande's economic adviser then Minister of the Economy. Personnel numbers are reduced and casualised at the same time as demands on the service increase. Pressure on the remaining personnel escalates.
The firefighters had had enough. In November and December of 2016, and again in March 2017, they went out on strike. There was no sympathy under Hollande during his last days and his successor remains the same today. Contrary to the film, a happy ending to this story looks improbable.
In Petit paysan, a young farmer devotes his waking hours to his beloved small dairy herd. But then, from far away, comes a killer virus. It's a powerful film. The industry thought so too, awarding the film three Césars (the French Oscars) in March 2018.
The Festival program calls the film a 'psychological thriller'. True, but merely to titillate the viewer? The attribution discounts the social, political and economic significance beyond the script.
Back in the real world, the French dairy industry is in meltdown.
Coincidentally, a large-scale investigative program on the dairy sector was shown on French television in January, called 'Produits laitiers: où val'argent du beurre?' or 'Dairy products: where does the money go?'. The program was shown on Cash Investigation, which effectively specialises in business-related investigations. The two-hour episode is available on Youtube, but only without subtitles.
In any case, the content can be readily summarised.
In early 2018, the dairy products company Lactalis was exposed as having knowingly sold infant formula contaminated with salmonella. Lactalis is the world’s largest dairy products company. It is a secretive family-held company, whose activities in France remain opaque and recent suggestions of tax evasion through Luxembourg add to the company's odium.
Lactalis represents everything that is wrong with globalisation. It's known for pushing down retail milk prices while paying dairy farmers peanuts. It so happens that Lactalis’ CEO Emmanuel Besnier is also number five on Forbes' list of French billionaires. Trickle down? I think not.
Alternatives for dairy farmers? The Cash Investigation's inquiry also covers a giant French dairy cooperative, Sodiial. The product of multiple mergers of regional cooperatives, it boasts 20,000 producers.
Yet size has also brought detachment — it also treats its farmer suppliers with contempt. Recently only a small proportion of its revenues has been returned to the farmers, the rest disappearing into the reserves of its subsidiaries.
Finally, the program looked critically at the New Zealand “model” – dominated by the rampant Fonterra – as representative of an industry socially and environmentally out of control.
This story would be familiar to Australians. Following deregulation here, remaining dairy farmers have been subject to comparable brutal treatment, powerless in the supply chain hierarchy. The supermarkets use ludicrously cheap milk prices as tempters for customers. Co-operatives have been demutualised, with the resultant corporate entities dictating terms. The Murray Goulburn fiasco constitutes the high point of the farcical outcomes.
French farmers face the additional burden of European Union dysfunctionality. The dairy sector was finally fully deregulated in 2015 under a neoliberal and “productivist” norm emanating from Brussels, supported by France. This destructive mentality is symbolised by the legitimisation of a 1,000 cow factory on the American model, a saga I outlined in detail in 2014.
A documentary on the despair amongst family farmers showed on French television in late January — Anne Gintzburger’s Les champs de la colère (The Fields of Wrath). Definite, raw material for next year’s FFF.
Through a glass, darkly
A handful of films in this year’s FFF cater to film’s potential as a social and political medium, but we get to see the issues only through a glass darkly.
Better than nothing. But will the viewer be content with the fictional version, or be inclined to inquire further about the context behind these plots?
The FFF can do better. It has done better in the past. From my own biased perspective, I’d like to think that a more considered social, economic and political focus, coupled with appropriate publicity, would continue to bring in the requisite bums on seats.
Those losing out in France's lockstep march to rampant globalised inequality and environmental decay deserve greater exposure and greater sympathy.
The French Film Festival has a devoted following and its organisers could apply that long-term support to better effect.
Dr Evan Jones is a retired political economist.
Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.