Films offer their own vision of le Nord, frequently a dark one.
Germinal Claude Berri, 1993
In the 1870s Etienne Lantier (popular French singer Renaud), unemployed and desperate, takes a job as a coal miner in Le Voreux. There he befriends Maheu (Gérard Depardieu) and his wife (Miou-Miou) and falls in love with their daughter. When the mine owners reduce the miners’ pay, Lantier instigates a workers’ strike. At first peaceful, the strike escalates into violence and, ineluctably, tragedy. Based on the famous novel by Emile Zola, Germinal is a lavish period movie that realistically portrays the difficult, dangerous lives of 19th-century miners and their families. (A century later, its economy reliant on mineral wealth, northern France was devastated as its coal mines closed one by one.)
La Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus) Bruno Dumont, 1997
In the desolate town of Bailleul, 19-year-old Freddy and his friends live on unemployment benefits and spend their days aimlessly riding their motorcycles. As often in Dumont’s films, the protagonist’s sole pleasure is sex, in Freddy’s case his intense connection with his girlfriend, Marie. The young men’s frustration focuses on the town’s Arab immigrants, in particular Kader, who shows an interest in Marie. Dumont perfectly captures the desperation of these young men with no prospects as the film progresses toward its shocking end. Considered “the” filmmaker of northern France, Dumont works with nonprofessional actors whose raw acting enhances the realism of his bleak films about the region.
Nord (North) Xavier Beauvois 1991
This allegedly autobiographical story follows a family as it slowly disintegrates under the strain of alcoholism. The quiet town pharmacist becomes violent under the influence of alcohol and terrorizes his wife (Bulle Ogier), son and handicapped daughter. When his drinking problem begins to affect his job, he checks into a rehabilitation clinic and family relations improve for a while. Unfortunately, he soon reverts to his addiction, with tragic results. Viewed through the eyes of the son, played by writer-director Xavier Beauvois himself, Nord-his first feature-is set near Calais where he grew up.
Quand la Mer Monte (When the Sea Rises) Yolande Moreau and Gilles Porte, 2004
In this bittersweet and highly atypical love story, Irène, a performer in her 40s traveling through the north of France with her one-woman show, meets Dries, a younger Flemish vagabond who is smitten with her and her show. Despite regular cell phone reminders that she has a husband and child at home, Irène is charmed by her ardent and cheerful admirer, and a poignant romance develops. The film beautifully conveys the ups and downs of this odd couple, the world of traveling theater and the atmosphere of le Nord. It won the 2005 César for Best First Feature Film, and Yolande Moreau took Best Actress.
La Vie Rêvée des Anges (The Dreamlife of Angels) Erick Zonca, 1998
Isa (Elodie Bouchez) arrives in Lille with no job, no money and nowhere to live. She befriends another young girl, Marie (Natacha Régnier), with an unusual living situation: Marie looks after an apartment belonging to a woman and her teenage daughter, Sandrine, both in comas after a car accident. While Marie begins a doomed relationship with a rich bar owner, Isa forms an obsessive attachment to Sandrine after visiting her repeatedly in the hospital. Marie and Isa dream up different lives for themselves to forget their problems, but dreams rarely come true-and can be quite destructive. The ironically titled film drew wide international acclaim in 1998 and won Césars for Best Film, Best Actress (Bouchez) and Best New Talent (Régnier).
TIED FOR SIXTH PLACE!
Germinal Yves Allégret, 1963. Historical drama.
Le Brasier Eric Barbier, 1991. Historical drama.
L’Humanité Bruno Dumont, 1999. Drama-thriller.
Karnaval Thomas Vincent, 1999. Drama.
Flandres (Flanders) Bruno Dumont, 2006. War drama.
La Raison du Plus Faible (The Right of the Weakest) Lucas Belvaux, 2006. Thriller-drama.
And don’t miss the beautiful Belgian films by the Dardennes brothers: Rosetta, L’Enfant (The Child), and La Promesse (The Promise), to name only a few.
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Originally published in the October 2008 issue of France Today.