With their trio of prior films together, director Stéphane Brizé and actor Vincent Lindon have declared a low-key manifesto of sorts. All three — culminating in 2015’s tremendous “The Measure of a Man,” which won the Cannes Best Actor award for Lindon — are richly attentive portraits of working men fighting to protect their interpersonal relationships and to retain dignity and self-determination, in tightrope circumstances that benefit from no social safety net. To find this furious brand of class consciousness so effortlessly allied to moral class conscience is rare in modern cinema, but it makes the capital-versus-labor quandary explored in their new collaboration, “At War,” seem like a natural progression. And in Union leader, spokesperson and factory worker Laurent Amédéo, Lindon adds another rivetingly real characterization to his muscular everyman repertoire.
It begins as it continues: in a riotous, talky, argumentative scene of disbelief and dismay. (This is not a film for the confrontation-averse; its title, while metaphorical, is well-earned). An automotive parts plant in Agen has been ordered closed by its far-off German management, having been deemed non-competitive. The workers, including the passionate and articulate Laurent, are for the time being united in outrage, having agreed two years prior to forego bonuses and work additional unpaid hours, in return for a guarantee of at least five more years of employment. Management, in the person of the director M. Borderie (Jacques Borderie), hides behind boilerplate excuses: it’s not them, it’s “the Germans,”; they’re trying to ensure the best severance packages; it’s the law of the market (a reference to “La loi du marché,” the French title of “The Measure of a Man.” ) The workers vote to strike.
What “At War” captures well, if stridently, are the tidal swells of solidarity and division that occur within the group of striking workers, who struggle to find a balance between coherent leadership and the democratic and socialist principles on which they’re organized. The group dynamic starts to fragment as the days without work stretch into weeks, and the factory management refuses to budge. As so often, the fatal split occurs along lines of pragmatism versus principle and long-term versus short-term, with Laurent holding fast to the terms of that earlier agreement. Others, meanwhile, start to consider the sweetened severance deal the company is offering if they will break the strike and go back to work to fill the final, outstanding orders.
We learn that Laurent is about to become a grandfather, and has a close relationship with loyal sidekick Mélanie (Mélanie Rover) about which the other workers gossip. But other than those scant details, Brizé and co-writer Olivier Gorce exclude all extraneous subplots to focus on an industrial dispute that coalesces and dissipates almost like an organic entity. It is an admirable but overly austere approach that relies on propulsive interludes, scored to Bertrand Blessing’s dynamic music, to create some forward momentum.
Cinematographer Éric Dumont’s handheld, impeccably vérité images exercise a kind of cinematic socialism too. Often the camera sits back from the action in a wide, peopled scene and searches out Laurent in the crowd — and whenever it does, Lindon’s performance acts as a lightning rod, conducting us through the cacophony to the heart of the scene. It’s a role he inhabits so flawlessly that it makes the film’s ill-advised final coup de grâce feel immensely misjudged; though an idealist, his Laurent is simply too solid, too grounded and too smart for such a disproportionately dramatic gesture.
In fact, for all Laurent’s blue-collar realness, this might be the most cerebral role that Lindon has taken on for Brizé — it is certainly his most talkative. And it is this turn that is the main element that sets “At War” apart from similarly-premised recent titles such as Michele Placido’s 2016 film “7 Minutes” or Pedro Pinho’s more surreal but no less socially aware “The Nothing Factory.” While never attaining the heights of grace and thrilling compassion that informed the desperately moving “The Measure of a Man,” Lindon remains an electric presence, whose strength Brizé seems to innately understand right until that final, cheapening coda. Amid the aesthetics of industrial decline that are depressingly familiar — parked forklifts, deserted factory floors, machines that are cold to the touch and do not whirr — the chief value of the impassioned but slightly flavorless “At War” is that it gives Lindon another opportunity to wear the undersung virtue of ordinary, rough-hewn decency the way a superhero might wear a cape.