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I know very little French, but I’m guessing the direct translation of Chez Nous, the title of Lucas Belvaux’s latest film, would be closer to “Our Home” than “Our Land.” In English, at least, the difference is subtle yet telling: “land” suggests ownership, “home” suggests inclusion. You fight over land; you fight inside a home. Inspired by recent and very real phenomena in French politics, Belvaux’s fictional movie presents the tale of a small-town nurse who joins a far-right, anti-immigrant party and becomes its mayoral candidate. And while it is certainly about different groups claiming ownership over a land, the film truly comes to life when it tackles the way these divisions can tear up a home — and a society.
But to be fair, there’s a lot of land in this picture, too. Belvaux opens with, and regularly cuts away to, elegantly forbidding images of fields and crisscrossing highways — a landscape that comes to symbolize the clash of the timeless with the modern — before introducing us to Pauline Duhez (Émilie Dequenne), a cheerful, hardworking single mom and longtime nurse who spends her days making house calls to mostly elderly patients. The wealthy local doctor, Philippe Berthier (the always great André Dussollier), has built up a lot of trust and goodwill over the years for his sensitive, dedicated treatment of these folks. So when he approaches Pauline and begins to sweet-talk her into joining the extreme-right Patriotic Bloc, she’s willing to listen — despite the fact that her own father is an aging Communist and she considers herself mostly left-wing. Soon, she’s attending rallies for the party’s leader, Agnès Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob, expertly playing a not-so-veiled Marine Le Pen stand-in), getting a blonde-hair-and-black-suit makeover, taking lessons in using code words like “lowlifes” instead of far more loaded terms, and signing on to an extremist platform she doesn’t entirely believe in.
Belvaux (along with his cast and co-writer, the novelist Jérôme Leroy) gets at the quietly persuasive twists of language and emotion that can send someone down darker paths. Philippe is an old hand at this type of indoctrination, it seems. He can take a flicker of doubt and expand it into a constellation of hatred, and Dussollier is a master of a casual kind of authority: He speaks softly, calmly, offhandedly, and commands our attention.
The party’s courtship of Pauline isn’t coincidental. To make inroads in the town, they need a likable local candidate who will appeal to ordinary people. The very qualities that make Pauline a good person — she’s polite, empathetic, and a patient listener — also help make her so persuadable. It certainly doesn’t hurt that she has unresolved issues with her cantankerous Marxist father, who chalks up her slide toward fascism to his failures as both a parent and an activist. (At one point, Pauline suggests to him that she is merely realizing the people’s revolution he once worked so hard to achieve.)
The political and the personal get even more tangled when Pauline rekindles a relationship with her old high school boyfriend Stéphane, a/k/a Stanko (Guillaume Gouix), a handsome brute who has since become something of a foot soldier for the right. She’s aware of his politics, but not the extent of his involvement in violence. (We, on the other hand, get to see him pummel a dude to mush in a nationalist boxing gym early on.) Stanko goes from giving Pauline’s son soccer tips to taking the kid out for an afternoon of war-game cosplay. Interestingly, however, it’s not her leftist family that begins to complain about Stanko; it’s her newfound masters on the right, desperately trying to reshape their party’s image and wary of being associated with volatile and unpleasant (and, ahem, working-class) troublemakers.
I don’t know enough about French politics to speak to the accuracy of This Is Our Land’s depiction of the country’s extreme right and how it insinuates its way into people’s minds. Some of it does feel eerily familiar. In the background, we hear sensationalist TV reports about foreigners and Sharia law. Teenage boys go on YouTube and exchange alarmist videos about airplanes plunging into the Eiffel Tower.
Still, at times the film seems to struggle to find the right aperture: It hints at elements I wanted to know more about, and occasionally goes into avenues that seem to distract from Pauline’s compelling storyline. The narrative sometimes cuts corners, which it probably has to, as it’s attempting to boil down the complexities of French politics into a feature film of under two hours. Even as the right-wingers went forward with their political campaign, I wondered what the rest of the political spectrum was up to. But maybe the fact that the political left and the centrists seem so absent from the conversation is part of the movie’s point.
The story rarely feels facile, however, and Belvaux and Leroy leave the decks admirably unstacked. They have taken care not to present anybody here as overt monsters: Stanko’s a fascist brute, but he’s capable of tenderness; even the loathsome Le Pen substitute Agnès gets a complex inner life — like her real-life counterpart, she’s struggling against her father’s overtly fascist legacy, and for all her fire-breathing demagoguery, she’s something of a political pragmatist behind the scenes. That doesn’t mean that Belvaux excuses the behavior, or the ideology. Quite the opposite: By showing how extremism can help mundane resentments and uncertainties grow into fear and hate, he presents a chillingly plausible version of a society slowly poisoning itself. This Is Our Land may occasionally try to do too much, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want someone to make an American version of this film and blast it into every multiplex in the country.
This Is Our Land
Directed by Lucas Belvaux
Now playing, Film Forum
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