Stéphane Brizé’s eighth feature is a David and Goliath story for the modern world. Perrin, a French car manufacturer, signed an important agreement with every worker at one of their plants, totalling 1,100 people. The details of the agreement clearly exhibit how desperate these employees are to keep working as over the previous two years, as per the agreement, they were essentially working overtime for no pay: paid for 35 hours a week despite working 40. They also agreed to forget about bonuses for the same reason. Set for five years, Perrin dishonoured the agreement after two, and the anger we see during the opening frames is justified, as is the title of the film. These employees have just heard of the plant’s impending closure without warning. Unsurprisingly, this news creates a massive rift between the employees and the company.
Signing this agreement, despite the unfair nature of it, was a deliberate but desperate attempt by the employees of Perrin to keep their jobs and more importantly, to keep the plant open and ‘viable’. After the first scene of chaos, a group of employees representing all others meet with those representing Perrin to discuss the matter at hand.
Intended to be a civil discussion, it soon becomes far from a pretty sight.
After a colleague Melanie is brought to tears by constant talk of profit margins, Laurent (Vincent Lindon in a role he was made for) constantly asks the man who seems to be in charge of those on the opposite side of the table if he is a man of his word. Smoothly avoiding the question like a well oiled politician, the response patronises the group of employees, as he attempts to claim that everyone is disappointed, that they are all in the same boat. These type of comments, as well as the repetitive noise about profits, competitiveness in the market and the expectations of shareholders slowly build up a demented rage within Laurent that rises, and once hearing yet another answer from the other side of the table involving balancing the books, he snaps.
He knows how many millions of Euro this company made in profit the year previous, and threatens them with a strike by every employee, all 1,100 of them, if they cannot resume work at the plant immediately. He is asked to be reasonable, but his patience is at its end. The film now becomes a guessing game as to where the strike will take these workers, and where it will end. First stop: the courthouse.
En Guerre is filled with realistic looking news broadcasts, including the opening scenes, consisting of clips that show the disgruntled workers shouting in protest after first learning of plans to shut the plant down, and later when they take to the streets to protest. This style of presentation could easily be misconstrued as a documentary at first glimpse, especially with the excellent voice overs for news clips throughout and the use of non-professional actors as the employees of Perrin. Personally, I honestly thought it was a documentary until I recognised Vincent Lindon’s unrecognisable face, who is leading the charge within the film, while most probably inspiring the other non-professional actors to show their absolute best.
While far from subtle, the film makes clear and inarguable statements about the state of democracy in the late 2010’s, the power that large companies can wield against those working for them, as well as the pressing problem of multinational corporations’ ability to exploit legal loopholes. Perrin, being a subsidiary of German corporation Dimke, leads to the possibility that these ideas aren’t coming from Perrin at all. They could be coming from, for lack of a better word, the corporate masters of Perrin. This is pure speculation of course, but when a matter this pressing occurs, having the most influential people on the matter in another country (or conveniently unavailable) hurts the issue at hand, as no one with any power can be reached, leading to situations like this where no one with real authority is in sight.
Dampening what could have been a brilliant film is that it becomes repetitive while the workers continue to strike and continue to yell the same things. Lindon and Mélanie Rover, who effectively becomes his second in command, who, despite knowing they are right morally and logically eventually two begin to repeat themselves, whether they are yelling on the streets or in an office meeting with Perrin where the volume of their voices aren’t much quieter.
Also a problem, for non-French speaking viewers at least, is that it that during scenes where the two parties meet, arguments will be par for the course, and it is near impossible to know who is saying what, not to mention opinions in the background that aren’t subtitled and therefore can’t be understood. There is no question that the situation calls for urgency from the employees like this, but during discussions between the conflicting groups, there are simply too many people talking at once to understand the nuances of the scene.
Touching on key matters and featuring a raging performance by Vincent Lindon, this is a film to keep an eye out for. Its semi-documentary style stood out from the other films that played at the French Film Festival this year. Its documentary style is a neat trick that had me fooled for a few minutes, thinking it was a true-to-life documentary. It creates an extremely realistic experience and it puts us in the middle of the action of a believable scenario.
Most concerning is the imbalance of power depicted, which isn’t contained to only the workplace. Whether it is within a family, a sports team, someone seeing a psychologist or any specialist, or politics, among other possibilities, power imbalances are inevitable, and in these situations it is crucial to keep the space between two parties to a minimum. Rarely the case unfortunately, and perhaps the film is right in that democracy and capitalism may not be the ideal system under which to run a country
But, as we stumble through the 21st century, no alternative exists. We don’t have anything better yet. Is the film preachy? Not overtly so, but the tale spun is certainly on the side of the employee. Whether this is a good or bad thing is for the viewer to decide.
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