Two women in their forties are sitting eating salads in a diner. One says to the other: “It’s now or never, dammit. We’ll fuck them all!” “Fuck who?” her friend asks. “All of them! All the lesson-givers at work, on TV, everywhere… It’s our turn to teach them a lesson.” Is this the onset of the #MeToo movement, the burgeoning of a feminist cause? No. We’re in a small town in northern France, and this conversation prompts one of the women to run for mayor on a far-right party ticket.
This Is Our Land (Chez Nous), a feature film set in the fictional French town of L’Hénard, tells the story of Pauline, a nurse and single mother of two, as she is lured into representing the ultra-conservative, anti-immigrant party Le Bloc, led by a buxom blonde who inherited the party from her openly racist father.
Director Lucas Belvaux’s fictionalization of France’s far-right Front National party is thinly veiled: Marine Le Pen inherited the FN’s leadership in 2011 from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an open Jew-hater and Holocaust denier. She has since attempted to distance the party from him and its violent, neo-Nazi image, and rebrand it as a more mainstream anti-immigrant force. The town in the film is inspired by Hénin-Beaumont, a formerly left-wing mining town where the FN won local elections in 2014.
A far right political party’s appeals to hatred and intolerance over democratic values gains enthusiastic support in a depressed French mining town. Why?
At a party conference in March in the northern city of Lille, former White House strategist Steve Bannon gave a pep talk. “Let them call you racist, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists,” he told them. “Wear it like a badge of honor.” But since being solidly defeated in last spring’s presidential elections, Marine Le Pen has intensified her efforts to appeal to a wider audience, by saying “globalist” instead of “Jew,” toning down the party’s anti-euro rhetoric, forcing a top party official to resign after he was filmed calling a black man “a shitty kind of nigger,” and, at the Lille conference, changing the party’s name to the “Rassemblement National,” National Rally.
Ambitious as Belvaux’s project may be, This Is Our Land fails to hold its own as a work of art. At its best, it nods to film noir, with scenes of seedy surveillance and late-night phone calls. But more often than not, the plot is erratic, and the film consistently sacrifices psychological depth to its more didactic agenda.
What This Is Our Land reveals, perhaps unwittingly, is an alarming lack of understanding regarding not-so-fringe far-right movements. The main protagonist, Pauline, remains somewhat of a mystery. Although she expresses doubts about becoming involved with the party, she caves in surprisingly fast. How does the daughter of a communist and union organizer end up representing the radical right? Is it because she, like many others in this town, feels abandoned by the national government and needs an outlet to vent her frustration? Is it through the influence of her boyfriend, a former neo-Nazi who enjoys intimidating brown-skinned people at night? Or does the party lure Pauline in by fanning her ego, as it is the only outlet that promises any kind of upward mobility in an otherwise dormant town?
We don’t know, because the film offers up all of these potential reasons by rote, without exploring any of them long enough to be truly insightful. When Pauline’s campaign organizers begin to radically reshape her life, she draws the line, not out of a crisis of morals nor because she realizes she is being manipulated, but simply because she’d rather stick with her boyfriend than have a political career. The film might be making the argument that Pauline is your average Jeanne, and, through sheer passivity, can get manipulated into becoming a run-of-the-mill right-wing radical. But this is a problem from a storytelling perspective: To have a passive central character is mystifying at best, condescending at worst.
This indicates a larger problem: The Front National enjoys widespread media coverage in France and abroad, but there is precious little in-depth attention paid to the root causes that push voters to turn to Marine Le Pen or any other leader who encourages hatred and intolerance over democratic values.
L’Hénard could be somewhere in West Virginia or Ohio or many other locales in Trumplandia. The movie has the potential to serve as a distant mirror to viewers here, by presenting the rise of a conservative backlash in a different country. Pauline represents the fraction of people who get involved in the FN not through any specific political conviction but through a combination of factors: the increased normalization of hate speech, job scarcity and a sagging economy, a resurgence of patriotism. But despite covering all the symptoms, this film offers little insight into the underlying processes of radicalization, nor how to respond to such dangerous political drift.
Still, in a context in which far-right, xenophobic and anti-democratic parties are gaining leverage in Europe and the rest of the world, This Is Our Land is a timely, if flawed, reminder of the insidious ways in which the narratives of fear can take hold of everyday lives.
This is Our Land (Chez Nous)
Directed by Lucas Belvaux
Distrib Films, 2017
Screening at the Film Forum beginning April 18.
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Photo: (From left) Stéphane Caillard, Catherine Jacob, Cyril Descours and Émilie Dequenne in This is Our Land (Chez Nous). Credit: Jean-Claude Lother, Synecdoche, Artemis Productions.