Labor activists and just plain working folks might look with envy overseas, to France, where work weeks are shorter and life can be better when unions battle management.
The truth, as recreated in the new film from Stéphane Brizé (“The Measure of a Man”), is grimmer and grittier, drawn-out. Where foreign news media might summarize the final score of a strike, who won and who lost, the battle itself is harrowing, fraying and exhausting.
That’s what the docudrama “En Guerre” (“At War”) captures. It’s a gripping and glum account of the ebb and flow of a strike in an era when all the power lies with management, and too much of the media sympathy lies with ownership — stockholders.
Vincent Lindon of “The Apparition” and “The Measure of a Man” stars as Laurent Amédéo, a working man and union rep fighting for his and the 1100 other jobs that will be lost when a German-owned auto-parts conglomerate closes their factory in high-unemployment Agen.
The 60ish Lindon has to get across the wearying nature of the struggle, the energy burned in combative union meetings, trying to keep the workers united, and in arduous negotiations with a company that will not be swayed from closing the factory by reason, economics, government pleading or the courts.
Le Perrin Industries is still making a profit, just not enough to prop up the big dividends that they keep handing out. Two years of labor concessions later, they’re pulling the plug.
Laurent and Mélanie Rover and their team go round and round with the plant’s manager (Jacques Borderie), trying to get them to honor their five year commitment, agreed to when concessions were given by labor.
But Laurent has absorbed the words of the film’s opening title, (in French, with English subtitles) “Whoever fights, can lose. Whoever does not fight has already lost.”
“At War” follows this struggle for months, through losses of faith, fractures in the “united front” of workers, through scrums with riot police and factory takeovers and workers unloading on a government that always acts in the best interests of business.
Several players in the drama are not actors and use their real names, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of the crocodile tears that Borderie, actually an elected official, cries when he assures Laurent and Mélanie (actually a welder) and their team that “It’s not workers against bosses any more. We’re all in the same boat.”
Other “suits” declare, “”That grief that you feel, we managers feel it too.”
But Laurent and Melanie are testy and firm — “We kept our word,” she says. “You keep yours.”
They gave up millions in added labor and lost bonuses to allow the company to thrive, but that cash was paid out in stock dividends and management pay, or so the workers see it.
Their contract is binding only until the company decides to bail out of it, the French courts rule. And damned if the president doesn’t figure that getting involved “would be counter-productive.”
We never hear “Thoughts and prayers,” or see it in the subtitles. But you can feel it.
Brizé intercuts the bracing debates with TV report point-of-view footage of the workers marching, manning picket lines, taking over headquarters and bickering over strategy as the weeks become months and stout hearts waver.
A pulsing electronic score paces these scenes, and Brizé parks his camera halfway behind pillars or other figures, giving “At War” the feel of footage grabbed on the fly and on the sly, as this battle unfolds.
The union leaders try to correct violent extremes in each others’ behavior, but there’s desperation in every talking-over-each-other shouting match.
The factions that break out deride Laurent for “prancing on the evening news,” but when they start to cave in, he spits his own accusations and warnings back at them.
“You’ve got a shovel to dig your own grave!”
There’s energy and pace in this film, despite the fact that it’s mostly talk, conversations carried out at a shout.
Plodding along — despairing — as it does, “At War” wearies the viewer much as the activists themselves are worn down. But that’s the idea. We can talk the “Stay strong, stay together” talk all we want, but until you’ve been faced with ruin, a gutted future and a desperate present, you just won’t know.
When the inevitable eruption comes, we can only shake our heads and wonder if that kind of direct consequences for callous, mercenary corporate behavior, would have any impact in the U.S.
Maybe, “At War” dares us to consider, the “fight” is all we have left, even if the war itself is lost.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire
Credits: Directed by Stéphane Brizé, script by Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce.
A Cinema Libre release.
Running time: 1:54