CANNES 2021 Directors’ Fortnight
Review: Returning to Reims (Fragments)
- CANNES 2021: A true silversmith of the archives, Jean-Gabriel Périot dissects the intimate and political history of the French working class by adapting a Didier Eribon essay
Laying bare the social inequalities and the violence of exploitation by going back in time from the memory and the everyday of his own family, in order to decrypt the general political evolutions of the workers’ society – it’s to this task that sociologist and philosopher Didier Eribon dedicated himself with his autobiographical essay Returning to Reims. Published in 2009, the book was bound to draw the attention of commited documentarian Jean-Gabriel Périot (appreciated for A German Youth [+see also:
film profile] and Our Defeats [+see also:
film profile]), whose work feeds on social dives into the past and very personal rereadings of official History in order to illuminate and question the present. The director (and exceptional editor) develops this approach in Returning to Reims (Fragments) [+see also:
film profile], unveiled at the 53rd Directors’ Fortnight (during the 74th Cannes Film Festival), exclusively through archival images (both real and fictional) very judiciously chosen and smartly positioned on a text read by Adèle Haenel.
Constructed in two movements, the film weaves itself from the 1930s around the figure of the Eribon great-grandmother, teenage mother at 17, kicked out of her house and who will have four children all placed in a charity hospice when their mother leaves for Germany for compulsory labour (Service du Travail Obligatoire) (she will also be shaved at the Liberation for having slept with the occupier). Having just obtained her study certificate, the writer’s grandmother started working at 14 as a maid, suffering sexual harrassment from her employers (silence or lose your job). Because “the laws of social endogamy are linked to school reproduction:” the children of workers were very quickly kicked out of primary school towards the workplace while those from the bourgeoisie continued their studies in high school. Worse yet, the former would psychologically eliminate themselves, contributing to reinforcing the tightness of social frontiers.
This separation, amplified by segregation in housing (“civil barracks”), by an extreme poverty of the working-class and by the physically inhuman universe of the assembly line in the factory, was experienced even more harshly by women, forced to have illegal abortions and under the control of their men (a masculine mentality shared across the entire society). Nevertheless, there was then a workers’ solidarity, a community united by popular balls and by the support of the Communist Party. This feeling of belonging will fade (that’s the second movement of the film) towards the end of the 20th century, with the Communist Party adhering to an anti-immigrant rhetoric, the rise to power of an extreme right riding on the defense of popular classes and the birth of the concept of social pact atomising individuals and numbing the polarisation of the struggles.
A fascinating oeuvre of memorial reflection and a virtuoso film in its assembling of very diverse illustrating archives (news, documentaries, fiction) that are always relevant, Returning to Reims (Fragments) is particularly effective in its more intimate first movement. The second half (the political repercussions on the contemporary situation) is just as excellent, but will be less surprising in terms of analysis, with the colour of the determined commitment of Jean-Gabriel Périot no longer needing to be demonstrated, which is all to his credit.
Produced by Les Films de Pierre and coproduced by Arte France and INA, Returning to Reims (Fragments) is sold internationally by The Party Film Sales.
(Translated from French)
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