I’d almost forgotten about Robert Guédiguian – which is a terrible admission since I like his films very much. This one left me in tears and emotionally drained with just a small nagging doubt about the politics. My emotional response suggests that this is a very effective family melodrama and I do think that it is a perceptive and intelligent film about contemporary political ideas. The whole enterprise has been undertaken with love and a clear principled stand.
The basic premise is not unlike the beginning of Couscous (La graine et le mulet, 2007) with an older worker made redundant in a dockyard and the consequent issues around marriage/partners and family conflicts. In this case however, Michel is also a union steward faced with redundancies that the union can’t (or possibly won’t) fight. He puts his own name into the lottery to decide which twenty men will go and duly picks himself as one of those to go. We learn that Michel is a lifelong socialist whose hero is Jean Léon Jaurès (the great French socialist leader from the turn of the century who was assassinated in 1914) but now he is contemplating retirement in his late 50s.
At first everything is fine and Michel and his wife Marie-Claire are given a wedding anniversary present of a safari holiday in Tanzania including a trip to Kilimanjaro by their children. But then something very disturbing happens that shakes up the couple and their closest friends, Raoul (Michel’s closest workmate) and his wife Denise, who is also Marie-Claire’s sister. I won’t spoil the narrative, but what happens certainly puts Michel and Marie-Claire into a difficult position and forces Michel in particular to question his own actions. Did he really fight for the jobs of the younger workers who were made redundant. Has he become old and complacent, just another passive member of the bourgeoisie? What he and Marie-Claire do then (she has her own concerns and takes her own line) causes a rift with their grown-up children, both of whom have families, in a scene that has echoes of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. At the same time, a potential rift between Michel and Raoul also hinges on what we might see as traditional working-class politics and the response to moments of crisis.
Robert Guédiguian is perhaps the nearest French equivalent of the Ken Loach-Paul Laverty school of filmmaking. He has made several films set in the working-class districts of Marseilles. All of these films feature Ariane Ascaride (Guédiguian’s wife) and often Jean-Pierre Darroussin – and here the two play Marie-Claire and Michel. Like Loach, he also has a regular script collaborator, Jean-Louis Milesi. Guédiguian also sometimes makes specific use of his own Armenian ancestry, here represented by the references to Jaurès who was also part Armenian. The other inspiration for the film was a poem by Victor Hugo. The poem and a speech by Jaurès can be found in the Press Pack from Mongrel Films.
The political observation at the centre of the film is that in Guédiguian’s view there is no more a ‘working class’, at least as a coherent entity. Employment has changed in France as in most of Western Europe so that unionisation has been weakened by the loss of large-scale employment in factories, shipyards, mines etc. Younger workers especially have only experienced the individualist ideologies of the modern workplace. Subjected to consumerism, de-regulation and all the other soul-destroying aspects of modern capitalist culture, they have never experienced the solidarity of the unionised workforce, nor realised what those working-class movements won in terms of employment rights. It isn’t their fault and in many ways they do face a tougher world.
Milesi’s script and Guédiguian’s direction produce a film narrative that manages to be both provocative in terms of asking difficult political questions and also warm-hearted and celebratory of the central loving relationship between Michel and Marie-Claire. I think that you could argue that the ending is still in some ways ‘open’ and that not all issues are tidied up, but certainly on a sunny day, eating outside on a terrace overlooking the port, Marseilles isn’t quite like a wet Wednesday in Greenock or Salford which might be the location in a British social realist equivalent.
My nagging doubt is the omission of any analysis of the reasons for the collapse of unionised employment – or real engagement with what the union needs to do to support and educate younger workers. The film isn’t really interested in the work of the men – we never learn what exactly they do, whether they are dockers, ship-repairers or whatever. Perhaps I’m asking for too much. This is a romantic melodrama with a leavening of contemporary political concerns – and it is very enjoyable. The title has a double meaning referring to the dream of visiting the mountain, and a popular chanson which has memories for Michel and Marie-Claire.