Cannes 2018 review: En guerre (Stéphane Brizé)

Laurent Amédeo (Vincent Lindon) is the leader of the union of the Perrin Industrie factory in Agen, Nouvelle Aquitaine, an economically depressed region of Southwestern France. Two years ago, the union agreed to lower their weekly wage in exchange for a five-year employment guarantee. Today, a transnational council has decided to close the plant, leaving over a thousand workers unemployed. The union has launched a strike, pressing the company to cooperate and find a quick agreement in the negotiations.

Even on paper, En guerre appeared to be a continuation of Brizé’s 2015 feature La loi du marché, that got Vincent Lindon an actor award in Cannes, and therefore deeply influenced by the Dardenne Brothers’ body of work. Unlike this precedent, En guerre barely focuses on its main character’s personal life. Laurent is divorced, paying alimony and about to become a grandfather as his only daughter is in her last weeks of pregnancy during the negotiations. We don’t learn much more. We are stuck in meeting rooms.

The company’s proposal is to simply give a monetary compensation to the workers after closing the plant. The workers’ union has managed to raise the original sum; however, Laurent’s goal is to do as much as they can to avoid the shutdown. Numbers prove that the factory makes a profit, just not as much as the transnational’s other plants, so the council states it’s not competitive anymore. This is perhaps the film’s leitmotif: whether or not corporations see employees as part of their core or as disposable tools. Perrin Industrie would surely simplify their operations by closing their least efficient plants and focusing on the most successful, but that would mean turning their back on hundreds and hundreds of teammates.

As conversations get harsher, a fraction of the union starts to relinquish and accept the idea of a monetary compensation. This creates tension and division among the workers, having Laurent as the centre of attacks that get more and more personal. In a meeting, a co-worker tells everyone else that’s what the enterprise wants: to create division. Shortly after, his credibility is confronted because his wage is the highest in the group.

The union is anxious to close a better deal, and for that they want to meet with the German CEO. They decide to move to the company’s other factory in France and block the access there. Their colleagues show support, and after some tension they finally get the appointment in Paris. Government is mediating the talks.

The negotiation with the CEO portrays the drastic clash between social classes. The German head of the company states he feels close to France because he has a French wife and a summer house in Camargue. When challenged about the carelessness of closing a factory in a region with no employment available, he shamelessly suggests the workers should migrate to other cities. As their needs and concerns collide, the hostility escalates.

The rise of violence gives us the best scenes of the film: a series of sequences with no dialogue or direct sound, only the powerful scoring by Bertrand Blessing. These raw and primitive minutes eclipse the dullness of the rest of the story, a correct yet forgettable study of contemporary Europe.

In a time of severe nationalism across the world, Brizé gracefully avoids throwing out offshoring or automation as additional subjects that would’ve depicted developing countries or technology as responsible for the manufacturing decline in Western Europe. Despite its flatness, En guerre is a more visceral gesture from Brizé, his cast and crew. This despair will hopefully lead him to more powerful storytelling in the near future.