Wednesday 4 October 2017

Chez nous (Lucas Belvaux, 2017)

Screening at the London Film Festival on the 10th and 11th of October, Belgian actor-director Lucas Belvaux's film shares a number of features with Dany Boon's Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis: the Nord-Pas-de-Calais milieu; actress Anne Marivin; crowd scenes filmed at RC Lens' stade Bollaert-Delelis; oh, and the word chez in its title.  It does significantly deviate from Boon's über-smash in that in no way could Chez nous (English title: This is Our Land) be described as a feel-good movie; it is, however, an absorbing and well-crafted film that has enough momentum to get past some heavy-handed moments.

Single mother Pauline (Émilie Dequenne) is a nurse who, while making a home visit, discovers the elderly patient has died.  Pauline waits for the ambulance and a Dr. Berthier (André Dussolier) to arrive for the formalities.  Berthier knows Pauline quite well as he treated her late mother and now does the same for her ailing father.  The pleasant if reserved doctor invites Pauline round to his house for dinner, where he promptly springs it on her that she's his ideal choice to run for mayor of their town.  Pauline is flattered but declines, although some difficult patients in her already tough job make the offer seem even more attractive, and, greatly encouraged by her friend Nathalie (Marivin), she eventually agrees to stand.

The party she's representing - the fictional RNP - are headed by Agnès Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), a steely politician who has apparently softened the image of the far right by breaking with her father's party and its more in-your-face brand of politics; working from a nominally reformed manifesto, Dorgelle Jr.'s EU-bashing, jingoistic, anti-immigration stance is recognised by most for what it is: a slicker, covert repackaging of the same militant views.  Getting attractive, clever, affable everywomen such as Pauline to act as poster girls is exactly what the RNP need if they are to make serious inroads into mainstream politics.

Standing for an extreme party unsurprisingly brings its tough moments, and Pauline's life grows even busier when she reconnects with Stanko, her boyfriend from high school.  Stanko is caring and kind to Pauline and her children, yet there's another, sinister side to his life, which is tied in with a murky past involving Berthier.  With the election looming, Berthier tells Stanko to keep away from Pauline, as he feels that Stanko's illegal activities - should they be exposed by the press - would sink Pauline's chances of winning.

Chez nous attracted some controversy when it was released in France earlier this year, given how closely Jacob's character resembles Marine Le Pen.  Arriving in cinemas before the presidential elections took place, Le Pen's supporters fumed at the perceived attack on their leader.  While France - unlike the UK and the US in recent times - ultimately rejected voting for an extreme, Le Pen nonetheless went the distance, losing only in the final round to Emmanuel Macron.  While Macron's victory was decisive, Le Pen's Front national had moved from fringe dwellers to a party that won a full third of the vote, and this fuelled the new populist right fire that Brexit and Trump had ignited.  The unsettling thing about Chez nous is that it shows a pleasant, reasonable woman being seduced by a party she doesn't really share an ideology with; Pauline is no extremist crackpot, and Belvaux's film shows how a well-adjusted person - one who's only slightly disillusioned - can be lured into darker waters.  The film does deal with some thorny issues, and no doubt Belvaux and Dequenne felt relieved that their Belgian passports put some distance between them and the subject.

Dequenne tends to light up any film she appears in, and here she's as appealing as ever, yet she's an actress who never quite seems to get the full recognition she truly deserves.  Sure, she's won a couple of times at Cannes, but she's a really remarkable performer who seems destined to remain underrated as lesser Francophone actresses hog the upper echelon.  The veteran Dussolier, like Dequenne, is a very likeable, completely dependable presence, and his part here again proves that he can do creepy when required; further evidence of him in this mode can be had in 21 Nights with Pattie and Resnais' Wild Grass.  Guillaume Gouix, best known from his role in TV series The Returned, provides good support as Stanko, who's a far more complicated character than he first appears.

There are moments where Belvaux could have dialled it down a bit - in one scene, a TV documentary can be heard in which the narrator talks about a non-native crab that's taking over the English channel, and Jacob's Le Pen avatar is just a bit too broad to be properly successful.  Naming the town Hénard is also rather clunky (it's a contraction of the old name for Hénin-Beaumont, a town in Le Pen's constituency which has an FN mayor).  At the other end of the spectrum, there's a sublime moment when Berthier corrects a party colleague who's described Stanko as a neo-Nazi - nationalist revolutionary is the term to use, apparently; the brilliant, telling riposte is that not everyone's studied political science.  With its atmospheric northern French locations - which the director failed to fully exploit in his disappointing One Night - Chez nous stands as Belvaux's best film for quite some time, and it works very nicely as a solid drama with a political slant.  The DVD/Blu-ray is available in France.

Darren Arnold

Images courtesy of Le Pacte