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(Screen Shot from La Grande Illusion (1937) Trailer)

Follow the money — why accurate political representations of modern day France are absent from the 2017 French Film Festival. Dr Evan Jones continues his critique.

WE CAN BE thankful that French Film Festival (FFF) has brought in on the margin the documentary genre.

Exemplary was the showing of Rouaud’s Tous-au-Larzac, FFF 2012, involving a fight for the Larzac area to prevent the extension of an existing military base on farming land. This doco had everything — no fluff, real world politics and social struggle and … victory for the good guys. A happy ending and a boon for all those fans of “heartwarming” stories who this time don’t have to go to fiction to find it.

Handmade with Love in France, FFF 2014, was a revelation. A run-around of artisan wizardry, fast dying out, that has underpinned French haute couture — a masterpiece in documentary-making.

But the documentaries remain too much on the margin. The weekly Le Canard Enchaîné (100 years old this year, and that without ads!) devotes a regular column to what’s on TV, with most of the columns dedicated to documentaries. It is evident that French documentary-making flourishes, much of which is of broad interest beyond the hexagon.

Missed opportunities on the documentary front

The FFF missed a sterling opportunity in 2013 to show the documentary L’Honneur des Gueules Noires (honouring the miners, colloquially known as "black faces"). This story has everything — coal miner heroism during the war converted into treason under Cold War realpolitik, the lifetime victims denied justice and restitution through decades of bipartisan political bastardry and indifference. If the story had been created as fiction, one would find the narrative far-fetched.

Ditto Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (the new watchdogs). The title is borrowed from Paul Nizan’s 1932 book Les Chiens de Garde. A 1971 English translation titles the book The Watchdogs : Philosophers of the Established Order, which captures perfectly the moral of Nizan’s original and the 2012 documentary.

Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde is a brilliant exposé of the contemporary French mainstream media, both public and private — the latter mostly owned by oligarchs. The creed is formally that of independence, objectivity and pluralism. But the documentary’s extensive use of television grabs and outlining of interlocked networks highlights that the practices and mentality of the dominant cabal of mainstream media journalists, and chosen "experts" contravene all three tenets.

As it happens, 2015 and 2016 were exemplary years for French documentaries, covering current economic and social conflict. Class and social struggle to the fore.

(Why not a film festival devoted entirely to this subject matter? It could run for weeks with so many landmark films and documentaries in this genre now consigned to history, unknown to current generations.)

There is Ruffin’s Merci Patron (thanks boss). In acquiring his mega billions, richest man in France Bernard Arnault has left some casualties in his jet stream. Amongst which are the sometime workers in the Ecce clothing factory in Poix-du-Nord, closed down in 2007. Arnault is the man behind the French luxury goods icon LVMH, whose size and profits have doubled in a mere decade.

Ruffin hones in on Serge and Jocelyne Klur, destitute (€400 a month, we don’t eat, give up on heating and so on) and about to lose their home. The Klurs have found it impossible to find work. They decide to blackmail Arnault and his entourage by threatening to go public, to be paid off to keep quiet. They are paid off (including a job for Serge) and the schemers break their promise — hence the film.

There is Davisse’s Comme des Lions (like lions). Françoise Davisse documents in real-time the struggle of Peugeot workers after 2011 at the PSA plant at Aulnay-sous-Bois on the Paris perimeter. PSA management had slated 8,000 jobs to go in France, including the entire 3,000 workforce at Aulnay.

Peugeot has struggled consistently since the GFC, with Spain, a major market, in the long term doldrums. Iran, a crucial export market, has been under permanent Western sanctions ordered by the United States. Peugeot succumbed in early 2012 to an entry by General Motors (then still under government administration) on its share register. Peugeot was immediately pressured to pull out of Iran completely. Thus do the workers at Aulnay "benefit" from the trickle down of mad global forces in which they are pawns.

There is Perret’s La Sociale — a doco on Ambroise Croizat. Most French people (let alone others) would ask, who? 

In the words of the Le Canard reviewer (9 November):

'Metal worker, communist, CGT [Confédération générale du travail] activist, Deputy in 1936, then Minister under de Gaulle in 1945, Ambroise Croizat is the father of social security. The man to whom the Conseil national de Résistance had entrusted the task of entitling the French to live and work without fear of dying at 30. Resisted by the employers, the doctors, the Church, by all those who preferred charity to solidarity, Croizat and his comrades won the day.

In October 2007, Denis Kessler, sometime functionary for the employers’ federation MEDEF, opined:

'The French social model is the pure product of the Conseil national de la Résistance. Take all that which has been put in place between 1944 and 1952, without exception. It is a matter today of saying goodbye to 1945, and of dismantling systematically the programme of the CNR! To disavow the founding fathers is a problem only in psychoanalysis.'

With the social security system currently under constant attack by the same forces, revitalised, who fought Croizat himself, the timing for this doco couldn’t be more appropriate.

There is L’Intérêt Général et Moi (the public interest and me) created by unassuming academics Sophie Metrich and Julien Melanesi. The doco focuses on current social struggles around developmental projects presumed to be “in the national interest”, although the public, especially those directly affected, is rarely consulted. These struggles have given rise to the phenomenon of zadisme.

Prominent examples are a new airport at Notre Dame des Landes, near Nantes, a dam on the Tescou River at Sivens in the Tarn, near Toulouse (involving a protestor killed by the forces of order) and a TGV line between Lyon and Turin.

The French state, contra the myth of dirigisme, is currently incapable of adequately planning and implementing its infrastructure agenda. It’s a running fiasco. In a neoliberal age, longstanding local patronage building has combined with the public-private-partnership vehicle, the latter poorly conceived and which benefits predominantly the private developers involved.

There is also Dumitrescu’s Même Pas Peur (I’m not afraid). This doco tackles the delicate matter of the Charlie Hebdo slayings on 7 January 2015 in a dispassionate manner, providing a social, political and cultural backdrop to the murders.

Apparently, the distribution outlets engaged in widespread self-censorship and this doco was only shown briefly in a couple of "trendy" outlets and disappeared from sight immediately. The official view of these and related events – je suis Charlie – represents a sickening distortion of the origins of that tragedy.

In August 2016, I emailed the organiser of the 2017 FFF, offering suggestions for the ensuing program — on the brief list some of the above documentaries and a couple of corporation-themed films. There was no reply — a reflection of what I think is called "Gallic insouciance". 

Merci Patron revisited

The inclusion of Merci Patron should have been a lay down misere. Its absence from the programme is inexcusable. The film has already been sub-titled. More, the film’s English Wikipedia entry notes:

'The film was a box office success. By the end of April 2016, the film had been seen by 315,183 cinemagoers in France.'

The dissident economist Frédéric Lordon analysed Merci Patron in the February 2016 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique. The English edition of LMD, more mainstream and constrained in scope compared to the French edition’s consistent leftism and breadth, declined to offer Anglo subscribers a translation giving insight into the film and Lordon’s perspicacity.

The film itself is a record of a showpiece of guerrilla warfare, conceived by François Ruffin, founder and co-editor of a pipsqueak “left of the left” periodical, Fakir! Ruffin had had Arnault in his sights since the closure of the Ecce plant, disrupting LVMH’s shareholder meeting with sacked employees in 2008.

Lordon likens Ruffin’s achievements to a “mouse that roared”, with Arnault’s apparatchiks (especially an ex-intelligence flic cum LVMH security chief, acting as go-between) uncomprehending of the reverse absurd imbalance of power to which they were subjected.

For Lordon, the experience of the Klurs embodies a focal point of the “global” meets “local”. The Klurs’ misery is the flip side of the valorisation of capital in the form of LVMH profits and Arnault’s bank account. It is pertinent to highlight that Arnault’s reaction to Hollande’s early promise to reign in the tax privileges of the wealthy was to move the family to Belgium.

Lordon notes with disgust the comprehensive and strategic acquiescence of the Parti Socialiste machine to establishment verities, here embodied in another key Arnault intermediary — one Marc-Antoine Jamet, simultaneously a senior Parti Socialiste office-holder in the region and a long-time senior executive of LVMH.

The Parti Socialiste has buried the working class. Ruffin, the Klurs and their ex-CGT delegate Marie-Hélène Bourlard, have disinterred it and have taken the class struggle into their own hands. Champagne!

The corporate world behind a fictional gloss

Beigbeder’s L’Idéal is a cheap take on the not cheap women’s cosmetics industry and its associated modelling extravaganza. It is transparently a swipe at L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics company.

Our sleazebag hero is a “model scout”. L’Idéal calls on him to find its next icon after its then muse is compromised by her exposure in a politically-charged sex tape.

Barratier’s L’Outsideris a fictionalised account of France’s own trading desk scandal — Société Générale (SocGen) and its “rogue” trader Jérôme Kerviel.

L’Idéal is claimed to be steeped in vulgarity (this from a Hollywood critic!) and L’Outsider is deemed boring by Hollywood again, as well as by a France-based Anglo. But numerous FFF offerings over the years have clearly failed the quality test. And the atmosphere down under where it’s almost mandatory to see the churn of American Wall Street fiascos ("it’s a must see”, “what did you think of it?") — means that anything non-American in this department deserves consideration.

But there is another dimension to these films — both have become highly politicised.

L’Oréal dominates advertising in women’s magazines — a fact alluded to in the film. Thus media coverage of the film and its stars has been well marginalised — as in Le Figaro Madame, Elle and Vogue. One can’t endanger the advertising revenue. The film was ignored at Cannes, as it happens, L’Oréal is one of the festival’s biggest sponsors.

Bizarrely, the bit part for the compromised model in the film is played by Franco-American Camille Rowe, then working at Dior in real life. Rowe was subsequently hired by L’Oréal itself, compromising further the publicity for the film. Life imitates art imitates life, especially where the domains share a mutual banality. None of this hoopla is mentioned in Rowe’s Wikipedia entry.

Regarding L’Outsider, Société Générale denounced the film before it appeared as being "far removed from reality". On the contrary, the populist online daily 20 minutes notes that seemingly unrealistic events have been reproduced accurately from the culture prevailing at SocGen.

More, the film appears at precisely the time when SocGen is back in the courts — where Kerviel supporters are attempting to overturn earlier judgments that had Kerviel as a maverick, leaving the company guiltless for its mega-losses.

As with the political documentaries, the FFF has left such films on the outer.

The habitual FFF centre of gravity in personal relationships, heartwarming or heart-rending, speaks of a certain sanitisation of life in France. Is this orientation accidental or mannered?

A French correspondent highlighted connections that left me realising that I am slow to join the dots.

Suivez l’argent!

Peugeot has been a longtime major sponsor of the Australian FFF. Surprisingly, this year it’s Renault. It could have been a window of opportunity to slip in Comme des Lions (joking). L’Oréal is a major sponsor of the New Zealand FFF.

Peugeot, L’Oréal, LVMH are French with a capital F. France’s balance of payments is heavily dependent on such "national champions".

More, current political dissent, driven by disgust at the parlous effects of the neoliberalist agenda and dysfunctional disruptive policies implemented by whoever is in power, does not put France in a good light.

The FFF is organised under the auspices of Alliance Française (AF), in collaboration with the Embassy. Created by the state in 1883, the AF was an early reflection of the deployment of “soft power” (note its original long name). Certainly, it is a softer variant than the American version, but influence and returns for “investment” are at the core of its activities.

Although the AF is formally now more decentralised, its official linkages and state subsidisation, in conjunction with the FFF’s dependence on corporate sponsorship, means that all cinematic options are not going to be addressed with an unbiased eye. And one can’t discount the prospect of functionaries envisaging a nice revolving door entrée with one of these companies that embody the "spirit" of France and being French.

Targeted assassinations in France (Mohammed Merah, Toulouse, March 2012; the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly, January 2015) have been followed by the indiscriminate massacres in Paris of November 2015, and Nice of July 2016 (one passes over here the accuracy and completeness of both official and Wikipedia accounts).

Myriad potential tourists have been thinking twice about making the trip. Naturally, this is a call to arms for the AF globally and its French Film Festival PR apparatus. One has to get the all-important tourist dollar flowing freely again.

So, this year once again, we go along to forget our troubles – and those of France as well – and join in a mutual celebration of heartwarmedness.

Addendum

One offers a back-handed compliment to FFF for introducing a token retrospective in recent years.

In 2013, it was the peerless Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) of Marcel Carné. In 2014, it was lashings of Truffaut. In 2015, it was Renoir’s anti-war La Grande Illusion. Last year, the retro fell off the perch with Godard’s Contempt.

An American critic has described Contempt as 'the greatest work of art produced in postwar Europe'. Hello? Sorry to be boorish, but in spite of its grand theme it is nothing of the sort. Godard’s prodigious talent perennially sank into self-indulgence and here the latter is on full display. After the early sighting of Brigitte Bardot’s bottom (imposed on Godard by producers) the film goes steadily downhill. How the mercurial Fritz Lang agreed to take part is a mystery — his post-Hitler exile in Hollywood no doubt clouded his judgment.

If the FFF wants retrospective, the box of options is bottomless.

Could I suggest that FFF digs up L’Herbier’s 1928 film L’Argent (money)? Magnificent. The film is a contemporary take on Émile Zola’s L’Argent, appearing in 1891. The novel’s subject is the manic financial speculation on the French bourse during the 1860s of the Third Empire. Plus ça change! What could be more contemporary than a 90-year old film inspired by a 125-year old novel, in turn inspired by a 150-year old event, on a universal theme that is the unholy pursuit of the filthy lucre?

And for a hard-edged documentary retrospective, how about Le Chagrin et la Pitié (the sorrow and the pity)? This as a means of transcending the "maudlinisation" of the German Occupation and its quisling Vichy regime. The Sorrow and the Pity, magisterial, is four hours long, but it’s in two parts. It should be another no-brainer for the FFF. And, to turn the screws on Vichy, it could throw in Clouzot’s Le Corbeau as a bonus.

Dr Evan Jones is a retired political economist. See Part of of Dr Jones' critique of the French Film Festival here.

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