One of France’s rare movies examining homegrown populism and the country’s own brand of far-right politics in a non-comical way, Lucas Belvaux’s “This is Our Land” has managed to rock the boat even before its theatrical release next month.
The movie, which portrays a charismatic 30-something single mother (Emilie Dequenne) who gets “hired” by the far-right party to become its representative in an underprivileged town in Northern France, has sparked uproar within the real-life National Front party.
Marine Le Pen, the party president who is also a leading contender in the French presidential election, and her right-hand man, Florian Philippot, contend that “This is Our Land” caricatures them and was financed by the Socialist party to damage the image of the National Front before the election in May. The National Front’s attorney went as far as to accuse the film’s producers of being disciples of Goebbels, the infamous propaganda minister for the Nazis.
That accusation brought a sharp rebuke from Belvaux. “That’s the way the National Front party operates: Any dissident voice has to be discredited,” he told Variety.
The surprising bit is not the reaction in France but the flurry of international headlines the controversy has triggered – not just in Europe but also in Brazil and Malaysia, among other countries.
In this post-Brexit and post-Trump election era, the trailer itself resonated strongly because everywhere in the world today there is some kind of populist party creeping up or already in place, Belvaux said. “The film portrays how the ideology spread by the National Front party in Northern France emphasizes social issues and targets the unemployed and the underprivileged. People who are afraid of losing their jobs are an obvious target,” he said.
David Frankel, who produced the film at Synecdoche, said that “the film has the merit of showing the state of France today.”
“It’s not ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ but eyes wide open. We show the world we live in. In that sense the film is similar to ‘Do the Right Thing,’ whose message was ‘Be aware it’s going to explode,'” added Frankel, whose credits include Claude Lanzmann’s “The Last of the Unjust.”
A crucial element of the film is the empathy that Belvaux employed to depict the film’s protagonist and even her lover (Guillaume Gouix), a former neo-Nazi, as well as the town’s illustrious doctor (André Dussolier), who recruits her for the party.
“Nowhere in the film do I judge the characters on either side. I rather give an objective perspective on what the far-right party in France is about,” Belvaux insisted.
Although the far-right has become the third if not the second most powerful party in France, depicting it in mainstream culture remains somewhat of a taboo. Most directors shy away from turning the spotlight on the National Front because they either don’t feel qualified to do so or they fear some kind of backlash.
“For so many years, the National Front has vilified intellectuals and film folks in violent ways to discredit them in the public eye. We’ve been nicknamed the ‘gauche caviar’ [the caviar-left wing] as if we were a bunch of hypocritical elitists who knew nothing about hardship,” Belvaux said. “In reality, that’s totally wrong. I know about hardship like many people who work in this industry do. We’re not the elite, and I do feel completely qualified to make a film about this party.”
What certainly displeased far-right figures is the way in which the movie shows how the party attempts to re-brand itself to widen its appeal. It becomes the Patriotic Bloc, which is officially a milder, socially engaged, nationalistic rather than xenophobic party. But while the rhetoric is more subtle, the film contends that the ideology remains unchanged.
“Populism is all about marketing,” said Belvaux.
The movie’s plot and characters are inspired by a wide range of material, from Paul Moreira’s documentary “Danse avec le FN [National Front]” to the neo-Nazi collective Maison Flamande to personal testimonies that Belvaux collected along the way.
Even though the movie deals with a touchy subject, it was easily financed, said Belvaux. Pre-bought by French public broadcaster France 3 and pay-TV channel Canal Plus, the film was produced by Synecdoche and co-produced as well as repped in international markets by Paris-based company Le Pacte.
The movie has already sparked interest from foreign buyers, said Camille Neel, head of international sales at Le Pacte, who will be on hand to present the movie to distributors at the UniFrance Rendez-Vous in Paris.
Belvaux said he hopes viewers come out of “This is Our Land” with a better understanding of the mechanisms of a populist party and what lies behind its rhetorics.
Does he think the movie will convert National Front voters into socialists or republicans?
“The FN activists won’t likely show up, but those who don’t vote or those who are on the margins, unsure of what party they belong to, might turn up,” said Belvaux.