Capitalism in the firing line
by Fabien Lemercier
25/11/2008 - Awarded Best Screenplay at San Sebastian, selected for the Sundance 2009 competition line-up and presented in the official selection at the latest London and Rome Film Festivals, the jarring comedy Louise-Michel confirms the reputation of its directors Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern as radically independent artists within the rather tame French film landscape.
After the wheelchair-bound road movie, Aaltra (in competition at Rotterdam in 2004), and the surreal Avida [trailer] (shown out of competition at Cannes 2006), the two co-screenwriters of the satirical TV show Groland on Canal + mark a change of direction with Louise-Michel [trailer, film focus]. They have achieved a more structured film, but without abandoning their roots: anarchist influences, a sharp sense of black humour and a fondness for socially downtrodden characters.
This explosive combination is wonderfully performed by two Belgian actors whose original talent continues to make its presence felt: Yolande Moreau (winner of 2005 Best Actress César for her debut directorial feature When the Sea Rises and outstanding in Séraphine [trailer], which is currently on screens) and Bouli Lanners (director and star of Eldorado [trailer], which was unveiled in the 2008 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight). The two play Louise and Michel.
The film’s title pays homage to the French revolutionary of the same name, who was nicknamed the Red Virgin. Louise Michel was a major figure of the Paris Commune (1871) and was deported to New Caledonia.
Anchored in a historical tradition of class struggle, Louise-Michel plunges into a resolutely and depressingly modern setting: a factory in Northern France that is unexpectedly relocated, leaving in the lurch the women workers who one morning find their workshop emptied of its machines after being deceived the day before by the cynical human resources manager.
Among the employees is Louise (Moreau), an abrupt, strange and borderline depressive character, who suggests to her colleagues that they pool their meagre redundancy payments and hire a professional killer. The target? The boss responsible for their misfortune. This suggestion is unanimously accepted by the other workers, leading to the fortuitous arrival of Michel (Lanners), a so-called security specialist who says he is prepared to carry out the contract killing.
But everything goes wrong. The complexities of globalisation lead the unlikely pair – Louise and Michel – from mistaken target to collateral victim, from Picardy to the multinational’s headquarters in Brussels, and the tax haven of Jersey. These bitterly humorous picaresque adventures alternate between the absurd and the politically incorrect: the subcontracting of murders, the terminally ill, technical difficulties during a cremation ceremony and a model reconstruction of the events of September 11, 2001.
Extremely daring in their approach, Delépine and Kervern elicit uncomfortable laughter without losing sight of the plot that centres on the dramatic and gently mocking portrait of society’s rejects (life in the mobile home parks and working-class apartments over-equipped with alarms and bank seizures due to non-repayment of loans, etc) and the radicalisation of the disadvantaged who have lost all their points of reference (sexual ones included).
This world is in complete contrast with that of the globalised multinationals and their CEOs who are as invisible as they are cynical ("Poland is rubbish; everybody goes to Vietnam now," says one). Guest appearances by Benoît Poelvoorde, Albert Dupontel, Philippe Katerine and Mathieu Kassovitz are like acts of support for two filmmakers who take a resistant stance and employ every means in their fight against cinematic conformity and social injustice.
Produced by Kassovitz and Benoît Jaubert for MNP Entreprise, Louise-Michel was made for approximately €2m. The budget included co-production support from Arte France Cinéma, a €400,000 advance on receipts from the National Film Centre (CNC), pre-sales from Canal + and Ciné Cinéma and backing from the Picardy region.