Director Stéphane Brizé was as stunned at the next man when footage emerged of frenzied strikers storming an Air France board meeting and ripping the shirts off executives’ backs in 2015. But while politicos and the media rushed to condemn the scandalous outbreak of violence, art-house’s objector supremo asked the question everyone seemed to have shrugged off in the ensuing fallout: “What happened earlier for it to come to this? I don’t think any worker gets up in the morning intent on ripping the shirt off the HR exec’s back,” he explained. “Months and weeks of struggle lead to incidents like that. News cameras are not there to record all that. Responsibility for showing that falls on movies and fiction.”
Four years on, his powder-keg drama, At War, does just that, filling in the blanks and, if not entirely justifying its motives, at the very least vindicating a workforce on the brink. Steering away from the Air France affair, Brizé’s fourth feature dramatises factory workers’ ultimately doomed bid to save their car supply plant from imminent closure. Backed into a corner and at a stalemate with apathetic management, they’re left with no choice but to launch a 23-day strike. As the battle lines are drawn, they scramble to unite behind one clear position leaving the door wide open for corporate goons to sow discord and bring the increasingly dejected staff to heel. Raw, relentless in its breakneck urgency (the film was shot in just 23 days to reflect the strike’s infernal countdown) and fuelled by “legitimate anger”, At War plunges viewers head-first into the fray: the union reps’ drawn-out war-room confabs, the excruciating face-offs with managers, the escalating clashes with riot police on the ever-thinning picket line. When the rage finally boils over and the inevitable happens, we’re left wondering not how it came to this, but how they held back for so long.
Brizé’s cunning move to cast non-professional actors, with the exception of his award-winning lead, screen veteran Vincent Lindon (as hard-bitten union leader Laurent), only compounds the universality of this Everyman fight. As does his decision to eschew sentimentalism in favour of unvarnished realism – while we’re thrust into the chaotic minutiae of the industrial dispute, we’re never privy to characters’ lives beyond the front line. Feverish, blood-boiling stuff, At War is a (much-needed) gut-punch to the status quo.
Director: Stéphane Brizé
Starring: Vincent Lindon
From France Today magazine