The French Malaise, Now and Then

Still from “The Workshop.”

Two French films open today in New York that are deeply engaged with the country’s malaise both present and past. Laurent Cantet’s “The Workshop”, which can be seen at the IFC Center, examines the troubled interaction between a successful novelist Olivia Dejazet and seven local students attending her writer’s workshop in La Ciotat, a southern town once dominated by the defunct ship-building industry and the militant Communist-led trade unions to which their workers belonged. Now, the only boats being built in La Ciotat are yachts for the super-rich who are resented by the economically depressed locals, including the students. “The Bag of Marbles” that opens at the Landmark on 57th Street is set in Vichy France and tells the story of two Jewish boys who are on the run from the Nazis. In preparing the boys for their trek across France into the Italian-controlled south of the country, their father trains them to deny their Jewishness. Over the kitchen table, he grills them as if he were a Gestapo interrogator. “Are you Jewish?”, he snarls at Joseph, the 10-year old who is more vulnerable than his 12-year old brother Maurice. When the boy says no, the father slaps him across the face and repeats the question. After 4 or 5 slaps, the father is satisfied that they are ready to send on their way.

Laurent Cantet has made only 7 feature films in the past 20 years. In 1999, I reviewed his “Human Resources” that I described as having the distinction of being not only one of the finest movies ever made about the labor movement but also unparalleled in its ability to explain and make concrete issues that barely receive attention in the print media, such as “just-in-time” production techniques. The film is only available as a DVD from Amazon, Barnes and Noble or well-stocked libraries but very much worth tracking down.

Two years later, he made “Time Out”, a tale based on a middle-aged executive who after becoming unemployed is incapable of revealing that to his family. Each day he dons his suit and drives off in order to give the appearance that he is still working. I never reviewed the film but the NY Times’s Stephen Holden got it right: “Although the movie isn’t overtly political and doesn’t examine the day-to-day impact of globalization on emerging markets, it implies a fundamental unreality of a white-collar corporate life that is about percentages and projections.” Like “Human Resources”, it is only available as a DVD from the same sources.

Olivia Dejazet’s writing students in “The Workshop” are a cross-section of current-day French society with four being born to immigrant families from former French colonies but seeing themselves as more French than the French. They appear more motivated to get something out of the class than the three of “pure” French ancestry, including a boy who saw it as preferable to day labor that the local unemployment office would have required if he declined the writer’s workshop.

One of the three, however, stands out. That is Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a smoldering presence reminiscent of the young Kevin Bacon or Mark Wahlberg.

On day one of the class, Dejazet (Marina Foïs) suggests a premise. There is a dead male body floating in the bay beneath the cliffs overlooking La Ciotat. Who killed him? And why? Almost immediately, the students focus on the why and particularly on the possibility that it has something to do with the class divisions in the town. Maybe the dead man owned a yacht and was killed by resentful crew members. Malika, the daughter of an Algerian who once worked in the shipyards, reminds the other students of the valiant labor struggles that used to take place there until it was shut down, implicitly by these forms of resistance. Maybe a one-time Communist came back to La Ciotat to kill a hated foreman?

As they hone in on the details of a thriller that has a political bent, Antoine stands alone questioning their assumptions. Maybe the killing was done just for the sake of experiencing a high? Upon his first appearance and increasingly through the film, we cannot escape the feeling that Antoine is a latter-day Meursault, Camus’s pied-noir anti-hero who kills an Algerian with the same kind of indifference that kept him from remembering whether his mother died on the day that the novel begins or the day before.

In an unsettling comparison with Meursault, Antoine raises the possibility that even those who supposedly kill for a cause might really be only doing it for the thrill. When he alludes to the ISIS-inspired machine gun attack at the Bataclan concert and in the truck attack at the Promenade in Nice as falling into that category, his Arab and African classmates take great umbrage.

When the students bring rough drafts of their first chapter, Antoine blows them away with his blood-soaked account of a crew member taking an automatic rifle out of his knapsack and going systematically through the yacht killing everyone on board. His prose has the bloodlust of a Cormac McCarthy novel but without the pretentiousness. In fact, like Holden Caulfield, there is nothing that Antoine hates more than pretentiousness, including Olivia’s best-seller that he critiques in front of the other students. He laughs at her use of the word “granular”. Who speaks that way? Why don’t you write the way that ordinary people speak?

Growing increasingly obsessed with Antoine, Olivia is determined to learn more about what makes him tick. She visits his Facebook page and is alarmed to discover a Youtube clip of a fascist meeting attended by his cousin as well as one of Antoine and his friends going out at night and taking turns shooting beer cans with his pistol.

Anxious to get his story, she invites him to sit down for an interview about his that will help her flesh out a character in a novel-in-progress. As someone from the underclass, he would be able to ground her writing in reality. As the interview proceeds, she brings up the Facebook videos that makes him ask if she has been snooping on him. Always seeking to appear fair-minded, she assures him that it was only curiosity that led her to his FB timeline. At that point, he breaks off the interview and begins thinking about ways that he can assume the same posture of superiority that she adopts with the students. The outcome is chilling.

In addition to the suspenseful stand-off between student and teacher, the film includes fascinating discussions in the workshop about the moral responsibility of art. Although it is focused on the novel, we conclude that these are the kinds of questions that confront Laurent Cantet as he begins work on a new film.

“The Bag of Marbles” gets its title from an incident in the film that occurs just as the Nazis have taken control of the chief enforcement machinery of Vichy France. Joseph, the young boy who has had his face slapped, loves to play marbles. A few days after his family has gotten instructions with the rest of France’s Jews to wear a yellow Jewish star on their jackets when they go out in public, one of Joseph’s classmates approaches him with a proposition. He would trade his bag of marbles for the star that Joseph has been forced to wear to school, seeing it more as a badge of honor than a sign of racial exclusion. After all, kids would get stars pasted to their homework in elementary school. Why not a six-pointed Jewish star?

A couple of days after the exchange, Joseph and his older brother Maurice will no longer wear the star nor any other sign of their ethnicity. Indeed, the only object that will betray them is their circumcised penises that their father Roman urges them to keep hidden from the Nazis.

The first half of the film follows the two as they embark on a harrowing odyssey from Paris to Nice, where Italian occupation of southern France was not yet marred by anti-Semitic pogroms. Once there, they reunite with their family with the expectation that life will go on as before. Unlike Hitler, Mussolini did not embark on a systematic genocidal attack on Italian Jews or those of France. The annoyed German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop complained to Mussolini that “Italian military circles… lack a proper understanding of the Jewish question.” In one scene that takes place in Nice, we see Joseph and Maurice’s father playing cards with fellow Jews and a friendly Italian soldier who warns them that they should make plans for their escape now that Mussolini has been arrested.

After Germany gains control of southern France, it begins systematically rounding up Jews, once again forcing the family to split up. Maurice and Joseph assume the identity of Catholic boys and are sent to a boys school where they blend in well enough with the others. However, on a trip to a nearby town in the company of the school’s truck-driver, the 3 are arrested by the Nazis and interrogated. He is accused of being a member of the Resistance and them of being Jews. To make sure that they survive, Maurice assumes the role of his father and drills Joseph into being able to tell a convincing story to the Gestapo. They are from Algeria and only ended up on their own because they were separated from the parents. The Nazi does not believe them and has them examined by a Jewish doctor who saves their lives by signing a document claiming that their circumcision was “surgical” rather than one mandated by Jewish custom. They survive but he is deported to a death camp.

As the story progresses, Joseph becomes the major focus of the story. He gets a job working as an assistant to the owner of a bookstore who worships Marshal Pétain. Assuming that Joseph is Catholic, he brings him closer to the family. He attends Sunday church services and enjoys dinners with the family. One evening over the dinner table, the bookstore owner and his fascist son speak darkly about how the Jews forced Hitler to go to war. Joseph does not even bat an eye.

There is no need for a spoiler alert to let you know that WWII ended badly for the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators. In one of the more powerful scenes of this emotionally draining films, we see leftwing enemies of the regime pouring into the bookstore and taking their revenge on the owner, raining blows and kicks on the helpless man. When Joseph spots this, he runs into the shop, jumps up on a table and orders them to stop. Why, they ask. He answers that he protected a Jew from the Nazis and now deserves protection himself. Which Jew, they ask. Me, I am a Jew, Joseph cries out. In saying these words, he finally feels totally free. The Pétain-loving bookshop owner gapes up at him in amazement.

As amazing as this tale is, it is all the more so since it is based on the real-life experience of Joseph and Maurice Joffo, who now live in Paris. The screenplay is based on a 1973 memoir/novel by Joseph Joffo that became a best-seller. A graphic novel geared to young people was written in 2013, portions of which can be seen at Google Books.

Canadian director Christian Duguay is a competent filmmaker but he is no Laurent Cantet. “A Bag of Marbles” is overly melodramatic and includes a number of scenes that probably embellish what actually took place. However, the story itself is compelling enough to make up for its flaws. Consult the film website to see if it might be showing in your city over the next few weeks.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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