Though commendable and ambitious, Claude Berri’s reverent adaptation of the Emile Zola mining saga “Germinal” is strangely flat and matter-of-fact. This earnest depiction of class struggle will be a struggle for many viewers as well.
With Gallic awareness of pic running high, and a cast of local favorites including Gerard Depardieu (from Berri’s earlier “Jean de Florette”) and renegade folk singer Renaud in his screen bow, local auds are likely to embrace this dignified telling of Zola’s 1885 classic. Those in search of lighter fare may give this longish pic the shaft, but foreign coin, needed to offset the record 172 million franc ($ 30 million) budget, should be forthcoming from offshore arthouses.
Story of the brutal conditions in Gallic coal mines in the 1870s is immediate and accessible, even to those with no prior knowledge of the book, which delineates the strained interdependence between starving miners and their well-fed overlords.
Unemployed mechanic Etienne Lantier (Renaud) stumbles into the hellish pre-dawn bustle of the Montsou mine complex, in northern France, and is drafted by miner Maheu (Depardieu) to replace a deceased worker on his crew.
Maheu’s daughter, Catherine (Judith Henry), shows Etienne kindness but ends up in an abusive relationship with the selfish Chaval (Jean-Roger Milo). Maheu’s wife, Maheude (Miou-Miou), has 10 mouths to feed.
Due to management’s time-consuming safety demands, tensions are running high. Etienne spreads the idealistic vision of a Workers’ Paradise and, when management lowers the per-bin fee, encourages the men to strike. Result is a chain reaction of tragic events.
Zola’s meticulously detailed account of deep-seated inequalities and miserable living conditions has been diluted in its transfer to the widescreen. Pic’s major shortcoming is that characters speak of poverty and hunger but their privations are not strongly conveyed at a visual level.
Lenser Yves Angelo, who gave “Tous les Matins du monde” its painterly beauty, sidesteps the temptation to make poverty glossy but the overall results stir a sense of neither pity nor indignation.
There’s no sense of claustrophic back-breaking labor; rather, a series of hints that mining is probably not a very pleasant job. Though never dull, pic seems dramatically arbitrary rather than inevitable and right.
Book’s omnipresent drinking and coupling are implied with deft strokes, with casual nudity always appropriate. Scenes of freewheeling dances at the village fair have genuine verve, and those of miners on the rampage are powerful.
A sequence in which women take their revenge on a lecherous grocer ranks as the most vivid depiction of castration since Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses.”
Performances are strong down the line. Although a trained actor may have better anchored the epic tale, singer-turned-thesp Renaud, whom Berri spent a decade convincing to accept the role of Etienne, delivers as the wan and pensive catalyst with Messianic overtones.
As Maheu, Depardieu gives a reined-in performance as a man made weary by hard labor and chronic injustice. Jean Carmet is touching as his father, whose coal-black spittle bears witness to half a century in the mine.
Petite Henry (“La Discrete”) is fine as the underfed child-woman. But the script underplays the mutual longing between her and Renaud to a point where what should be the pic’s strongest romance is so subdued as to go unnoticed.
Milo makes a hissable villain as Chaval, and Miou-Miou, as Depardieu’s wife, delivers an award-caliber perf in the plum role of a practical woman struggling to make ends meet.
Production design is impressive, and music fitting and unobtrusive. Extras, drawn from modern mining families, provide an arresting display of faces.