There’s a poignant and far briefer film hiding in the uncritical mass of interviews that makes up “Back to Work.” But helmer Herve Le Roux, whose 1993 fiction debut, “Grand Bonheur,” showed great, if rambling, promise, is content to let participants babble on about their memories of ill-paid hard work, dashed hopes, pride and camaraderie 28 years after a failed factory strike. Ponderous pic has a built-in audience in Gaul, but since Le Roux is loath to reduce or shape his mountain of testimony, watching the result sometimes feels like screening rushes.
In June 1968, two film students made a guerrilla visit to industry-laden Saint-Ouen, home to the Paris flea market, and shot a one-reel docu of defeated workers returning to the assembly line at the Wonder battery factory after an
unsuccessful three-week strike. Intrigued by one young woman whose vehement protests monopolize the vintage frame, Le Roux tracked down most of the people on view in the short, along with other former workers at the now-defunct plant.
Le Roux’s docu, which just won the prestigious Georges and Ruta Sadoul Prize, has no discernible point of view, but functions as layers of oral history. What emerges is an overlong and repetitive but often touching verbal portrait of Zolaesque working conditions as recently as the early ’70s.
Oddly enough, many witnesses are openly nostalgic for a now-vanished time when gritty exhaustion and unrepentant capitalist exploitation were a given, made endurable by solidarity with co-workers. Work – even 50-plus hours and six days a week for puny wages – was sacred, accepted and respected.
Where most conscientious documakers endeavor to excise repetition, Le Roux – whose stated mission is to give the working man and woman a voice – positively revels in it. Viewers without a personal stake in recent French labor history are more than likely to lose interest well shy of the three-hour mark.
Pic nourishes audience expectations that the current whereabouts of the source docu’s defiant young woman will be traced and that her anger, trapped in cinematic amber, will have given way to something else, preferably with emotional or instructive resonance. Docu essays a quasi-poetic resolution, without truly delivering the goods.