Cannes challenges neoliberal order in angry French strike drama
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Vincent Lindon leads the battle in Stéphane Brizé’s shoutfest “At War”, about a French factory strike, while Andrew Garfield goes down the rabbit hole in surreal Los Angeles film noir, “Under the Silver Lake”.
Just when we thought the red carpet’s star-starved photographers would lay down their tools in protest, the Millennium Falcon came to the rescue of a lacklustre Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday night for the world premiere of “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. Truth be told, we didn’t actually see the Falcon hovering over the Croisette, but Chewbacca and a phalanx of storm troopers strode down the carpet to the delight of fans and photographers alike – though some were puzzled to see actor Joonas Suotamo, who plays the hairy Wookiee, standing alongside him in a tuxedo.
No number of storm troopers – or rather riot police in ninja turtle body armour – could stop French workers from striking in Stéphane Brizé’s “At War”, which screened in competition ahead of the Star Wars spin-off. As always, the force is strong with Vincent Lindon, who takes the lead role again three years after taking the best actor award for his part in Brizé’s excellent “The Measure of a Man”. Once again, their partnership has resulted in a powerful social drama that screams injustice – though this one is not so subtle (and is tarnished by a disturbing final twist).
Lindon plays Laurent Amedeo, a fiery worker and union leader whose car-parts manufacturing plant, which employs 1,100 people, is being shut down by its parent company in Germany. We meet him and his co-workers in the first of several shouting matches with the factory’s managers. The workers are naturally furious, having agreed two years earlier to give up their bonuses and work longer hours in return for a written promise to keep the factory going. They stand united – until cracks emerge when talks stall, violence kicks off, and management offers the ditherers improved payouts.
By pricking the Cannes bubble of celebrity-swooning and general aloofness, Brizé has served up a timely reminder of the social strife that is currently gripping France, triggered by President Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping pro-market reforms. Such has been the media’s fascination with the youthful French leader – and his brash assurance that under his modernising leadership “France is back” (from where?) – that it is easy to forget this is still a country riddled with hardship, joblessness and self-doubt.
A tightly focused film, “At War” shines a harsh light on the brutality and injustice of the neoliberal order, one in which “the market” is all-powerful and supposedly omniscient, while governments are impotent – or feign to be so. It shows how workers are trapped in a paternalistic and grossly unfair system that exploits and misleads them, while constantly putting them down. “We’re all in the same boat,” the managers are fond of repeating, except they’re very obviously not.
Brizé’s managers are neither callous nor mean: They simply speak a different language, technocratic jargon about “profit margins” and “competitiveness”, in which human beings are accounting variables. “You’re in denial,” the besuited executives tell baffled workers, pointing to spreadsheets that supposedly prove there is no alternative to closing the plant. But all the workers can see is that the factory is profitable, shareholders are pocketing handsome dividends, and yet still they’re getting fired.
“At War” is a worthy companion piece to “The Measure of a Man”, though it lacks the earlier film’s moral predicament, its subtle portrayal of the extent to which this cut-throat environment challenges a man’s integrity and self-respect. Once again, Brizé’s close-up, handheld camera takes its time in lengthy sequence shots, allowing anger and frustration to build. For viewers relying on subtitles, the persistent shouting matches will prove particularly testing – and exasperating.
Lindon gives another intense and physically impressive performance, blending in seamlessly with the largely non-professional cast. However, while the film begins as a convincing ensemble performance, it steadily narrows its focus on Amedeo’s character, introducing an imbalance where there initially was none. The end also felt unnecessarily dramatic, carrying a disturbing suggestion that only the most extreme form of protest can produce any results.
“Refusing to understand the market is like wanting a different world,” says a senior German executive towards the end of Brizé’s film, in what sounded like an inadvertent call for revolution. There was a bizarre guru figure who said something similar about quitting this ghastly world in the following competition entry, David Robert Mitchell’s “Under the Silver Lake” – though the parallel ends there.
A stylish noir peppered with surreal comedic touches, “Under the Silver Lake” marks the US helmer’s eagerly awaited return to Cannes four years after his indie horror “It Follows” brought fright and delight in equal measure to the Croisette. It stars Andrew Garfield as a scruffy, aimless young man who falls for his ravishing neighbour, played by Riley Keough, and goes hunting for her when she suddenly vanishes. Along the way, he comes across the abovementioned guru as well as dog killers, reclusive songwriters, glitter-goth bands and an endless array of gorgeous girls, all the while piecing together mysterious clues from fanzines, playboy magazines and old cereal boxes.
Stuffed with cinematic references, Mitchell’s entertaining but indulgent movie takes the old-fashioned theme of Los Angeles as the city of mystery and vice, and gives it a distinctly contemporary, geeky spin. For the disgruntled red carpet photographers, it had that rare asset: Hollywood stardust. But to their shock and dismay, the stars failed to show up.