Controversy is already building for “This Is Our Land,” Lucas Belvaux’s fictionalized story of a well-intentioned working-class single-mom in northern France who’s won over to the far right by a charismatic blonde leader and her henchmen. It just so happens that the blonde leader looks and acts an awful lot like Marine Le Pen, a politician not exactly known for her thick skin. Heated debate will only increase following the pic’s late February French opening. The film is a shoo-in for Stateside distribution, since Belvaux’s theme is the cinematic equivalent of all those articles trying to understand the disgruntled white voters who supported Trump. While too baldly calculated and on-message to rank with Belvaux’s best, “Our Land” will see perhaps the strongest returns of his career given the topicality.
Pauline (Émilie Dequenne) is the poster girl (literally in this case) for the hard-working, “average” resident of one of France’s industrial regions in the northeast. She’s a visiting nurse, raising two kids on her own while looking after her father, Jacques (Patrick Descamps), now slowed down after years of manual labor and union activism. Everyone likes Pauline, and she’s kind to all, but she’s tired of being alone, so when her high-school sweetheart Stéphane, aka Stanko (Guillaume Gouix) comes back into her life, she feels things are looking up. Odd she doesn’t see any significance in the screamingly obvious fascist-design tattoo prominently inked across his back.
One day her father’s doctor, Philippe Berthier (André Dussollier), asks her to come to his patrician home to talk. Though she knows the gentlemanly Berthier’s politics are diametrically opposed to her father’s communist sympathies, she’s not political and hasn’t voted in ages, and so is taken aback when he suggests she run for mayor on the platform of Agnès Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), leader of the far-right Patriotic Bloc. Pauline makes the usual objections, concerned that Dorgelle is fascist and bigoted. But she’s told that Dorgelle is merely concerned about how regular people like Pauline have been marginalized.
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Belvaux and his team have done an impressive job recreating Le Pen’s National Front, from its rigidly on-point message about championing those who believe they’re disenfranchised, to the “renewed nation” slogans, to the party’s website, with an image of one of Viollet-le-Duc’s ahistorical restorations of a walled town that so perfectly fits with the far-right’s message of a mythical past needing to be made clean again. And then there’s the personality cult of Le Pen herself, in the form of Agnès. No-nonsense, projecting a heady mix of power and supportiveness, the leader sees Pauline as the perfect representative of her toxic agenda, the nurse’s genial naivete and “woman of the people” manner serving as the ideal front for her own racist platform.
Thanks to Berthier’s gentle guidance and Dorgelle’s flattering sponsorship, Pauline accepts the challenge, even submitting to a blonde dye job, since that’s more on-message than her natural brown hair. Belvaux, together with co-writer Jerôme Leroy (this is the first time the director has shared script credit), makes Pauline a relatively full, sympathetic character in the hope that she’ll be an identifiable figure to viewers with similar personalities: nice, helpful, and unaware that the National Front is crypto-fascist. The parallels between France and the U.S. won’t be lost on anyone, as the combination of shallow thinking with latent bigotry are hallmarks of populist voters in both nations.
Yet the film is so calculated in its plotting that it loses some of its chill. Belvaux’s concerns are very real, and he’s correct in thinking that cinema is one of the most direct ways of exposing the way Le Pen and those like her manipulate a wounded sense of patriotism to then target immigrants and minorities. However, too often it feels as if the movie is so invested in signaling each sneaky act of exploitation on the part of the Patriotic Bloc that Pauline threatens to become simply a method for delivering Belvaux’s message; one wonders how a Ken Loach might have made it all feel a bit less premeditated.
Fortunately Dequenne (“Our Children”) conveys so much warmth that Pauline never feels pandered to; she may not be thinking things through, but she’s not a doctrinaire racist like those recruiting her. She is, in fact, the average person, swayed by people who impress, harboring grievances about the difficulties of getting ahead in life, and unable to see how people like Le Pen (and Trump) use fear to gain power at the expense of compassion. Dussollier’s gentle mien is well-calibrated to seduce just such a figure, and Jacob nails the no-nonsense Le Pen prototype (though the genuine article is more frightening).
Frequent shots of the region around Pas de Calais, with low-rise housing estates and a working-class majority population as well as rolling hills, ensure that a sense of place is always at the fore – so important considering the emphasis on “our land” being invaded by foreigners. Visually the film is in keeping with Belvaux’s solid, handsomely crafted style.