Les Anarchistes: an infiltrator in the nineteenth century
by Bénédicte Prot
- CANNES 2015: Élie Wajeman opened Critics’ Week with his second historical feature film, which is nonetheless very current, in which young withered idealism tries to fight back with political revolt
It was in the magnificent role of infiltrator that the Croisette and the rest of the world discovered Tahar Rahim six years ago, in the outstanding film A Prophet [+see also:
interview: Jacques Audiard
interview: Jacques Audiard and Tahar R…
film profile]. It was therefore only natural that Élie Wajeman slip him into the leading role of his second feature film, Les Anarchistes [+see also:
film profile], the opening film of the 54th Critics’ Week of the Cannes Film Festival, which tells the story of how Jean Albertini, a policeman who is as dull dishwater, not very talkative, quite alone in the world and a lover of books (having grown up without a father, he claims to have learnt everything he knows from Victor Hugo), is given the task of spying on a group of young anarchists by passing himself off as one of them. The year is 1899, the ‘Lois scélérates (lit. ‘villainous laws’) have been passed by the Third Republic introducing certain “measures” to crack down on anarchist activity, and the dawn of the twentieth century, which will see the the birth of Jaurès socialist party, but also the Bonnot Gang, is just around the corner. The gang that Jean joins includes Élisée the idealistic ringleader (Swann Arlaud), Eugène the fierce (Guillaume Gouix), Biscuit the soft-hearted boy of the people (Karim Leklou), Marie-Louise the middle-class dame who welcomes the gang into the luxury of her family home (Sarah Le Picard) – as after all, don’t the educated middle classes make the fiercest revolutionaries? – and finally Judith, a sweet and determined girl who dreams of being a schoolteacher (Adèle Exarchopoulos).
This position of infiltrator held by Rahim’s character was the very point of departure for Wajeman, who first considered Donnie Brasco for the role. This may come as a surprise, given the period in which the film is set, but it is this very modernity that makes the film so powerful. As pointed out by Charles Tesson on the subject of this film, which is one of the only second feature films of his selection this year, it’s not easy to come back after a debut film as highly-praised as Alyah [+see also:
film profile] was (it was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight in 2012), especially with a historical film, but for the Artistic Director of Critics’ Week, this film has succeeded in doing just that, as it echoes the very current disillusionment of our present day (highlighted by the recurring use of more or less contemporary language).
This was clearly exactly what the director wanted, to portray a climate not all that different from that of May 68 or the beginning of the 1980s, the years of Baader and other robbers and righters of wrongs. His choice of music leaves no doubt on this, as the sombre, blue-hued images of the film (that go against the garish tones of some period films – even though the end of the nineteenth century was hardly a colourful period) are regularly superimposed by tunes recalling the time of the hippies, who aren’t all that different when it comes down to it to these young people, all orphans, who live in a ‘communal’ space, worthy heirs to Proudhon and Fourier with free morals.
Wajeman certainly has a particular talent for coupling cinematographic genres and eras, and for establishing links between filmographies (his own, that of Rahim and of Adèle). Between our young anarchists, on the other hand, disagreements and arguments are commonplace, even though they are united (even Jean the undercover policeman) by their common contempt for the bourgeois “pigs” and by the idea that it is love and not hate that guides them. Judith even has this to say, towards the end of the film: she makes Jean see that they are “losers” or all lost at least, each for different personal reasons. This explains why the film, in spite of its spirited title, has a rather lacklustre appearance, beyond its sombre hues which lack any yellow or red, the colour of the spark of a bomb which will never explode. Surprisingly, in many respects, Les Anarchistes shows a lot of restraint.
(Translated from French)