Culture

Cliche-free family drama opens Critics’ Week

BEIRUT: Overheated as it is, capitalism these days isn’t behaving so much differently than it did in the late 20th century, but the culture billowing about it sure is.

One case in point is the “Money and Power Season,” the theme driving current programming on the U.K.’s public broadcaster. In one program aired this summer, a radio host interviewed couples imploding beneath economic stress and – in a gesture worthy of Oprah – introduced them to a “financial therapist,” offering bottom-line-savvy marriage counseling.

Further signs of the times have been emanating from cinema.

Take “Nos batailles” (“Our Struggles”), the second feature of Belgian writer-director Guillaume Senez.

It follows several difficult months in the life of the Vallet family – a husband and wife trying to raise a pair of preteen kids while dad fights a rear-guard action to protect workers’ rights in an environment of growing job insecurity.

Senez’s film premiered in May with a special screening at the Semaine de la Critique (Critics’ Week), a parallel section of the Cannes Film Festival. It was projected in Beirut Monday evening, the opening night of the Beirut reprise of Critics’ Week.

The film’s subject matter sounds as unpleasantly solemn as the world moviegoers may be needing to escape this summer, but Senez’s execution of this story balances political outrage with believable characters, resilient optimism with unsentimental realism.

The film starts before dawn as Olivier Vallet (Romain Duris) leaves his place somewhere outside Paris, en route to work at a packaging-distribution plant, where he’s a crew chief.

He’s also a busy union organizer, tirelessly pointing out his crew’s needlessly difficult working conditions to his supervisor Agathe, whose management philosophy is to drive her staff like machines.

The film’s first lines of dialogue are between Olivier and Agathe, who announces that she intends to fire a member of his crew, Jean-Luc, because he’s been having trouble keeping up the pace.

When he sees Jean-Luc later in the day, Olivier pretends he knows nothing about Agathe’s intentions. If he is sacked, Jean-Luc matter-of-factly informs him, the only thing standing between his family and destitution is his life insurance policy.

Labor preoccupies so much of Olivier’s day that it falls to his wife Laura (Lucie Debay), who has a casual retail job, to handle most of the hands-on rearing of her kids, Elliot and Rose (Basile Grunberger and Lena Girard Voss).

The viewer is introduced to the family while Laura and Elliot are at the doctor, who’s seeing to the bad burn on the boy’s chest.

While the lady doctor is remarking on how many of these kitchen accidents she sees every year, young Elliot leaps to his mom’s defense, saying she didn’t do it on purpose.

It’s the first sign that there may be some problems at home. By the time he gets home, Olivier learns that Jean-Luc has indeed been fired, and that his co-worker has embraced the only solution open to him.

Soon after that, he learns that Laura has left him. The viewer has been given enough clues to piece together a narrative for Mom’s departure but, coming without a word, the abandonment staggers Olivier.

As he tries to prepare a meal for his kids, “Our Struggles” becomes weirdly reminiscent of the 1979 U.S. melodrama “Kramer vs. Kramer” – Meryl Streep leaves Dustin Hoffman’s bourgeois architect, who must get to know his son and learn how to raise him – retold from a working-class French perspective.

The two films do share a common dramatic trope (work-obsessed dad out of touch with his offspring) but ultimately Senez’s work is quite unlike “Kramer vs. Kramer” and other soap operas of its ilk.

The concerns of Senez’s family drama more closely echo those of European neorealism, whose contemporary inheritors include Ken Loach, the great chronicler of the U.K.’s working class before, during and since Margaret Thatcher.

Senez’s is an emotionally charged story. Olivier must juggle work (including the guilt of one co-worker’s suicide and the consequences of a one-night fling with another), the union (and the option of making more money, but only if he’s willing to relocate to a different region), and his family, including his sister Betty (Laetitia Dosch), a likably wacky actor who briefly materializes to help out but who can’t stay as long as he or the kids need. To his credit, and that of co-writer Raphaelle Desplechin, at no point does the film indulge in glib sentimentality or its nonsensical narrative resolutions.

There’s more to be commended in the writing than its steering clear of genre tropes. This tale of a decent, working class, economically and emotionally distressed family is nothing if not timely.

At the same time, the story avoids opportunistic reference to Europe’s migrant crisis. It ignores the resurgent far-right as well – though the title “Our Struggles” might be read as flicking off a tract from last century, penned by Adolf Hitler.

The writers’ intent is clear. Families fractured by the present economic status quo deserve to be depicted in their own humane terms, not as cookie-cutter cliches assembled from the news cycle.

The writers’ intentions are ably realized by their cast. Gallic film lovers will likely recognize Duris as one of the more marketable faces in Francophone cinema, and his light-handed depiction of Olivier’s character is nuanced and believable. Authenticity marks all the performances in this quiet film, including child actors Grunberger and Girard Voss, who play Olivier’s kids.

It’s the sort of ensemble clarity that can make indie film even more satisfying than watching the Avengers save the universe, again.

The Beirut reprise of the 2018 Semaine de la Critique program runs at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil through Aug. 2. For more, see https://www.metropoliscinema.net.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 24, 2018, on page 16.

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