Retour à Reims is a memoir by philosopher and sociologist Didier Eribon that had a huge impact in France when it came out in 2009. In his essay Eribon used his own life experiences and his mother’s testimony on her childhood as a basis for a prolific and thorough reflection on the topics of class warfare, oppression of minorities, and how politics strengthen rather than counterweigh these structural dominations. The way French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot chose to adapt this book on screen gives birth to another kind of essay. By having Eribon’s first-person narration recited in voice-over by someone of another gender (the actress Adèle Haenel), and by illustrating this text with archive footage from works of French cinema and reports from French television, Périot goes one step further in the transformative movement from the particular to the universal. This is not just one single voice that expresses itself anymore; it is a multitude, the vast crowd of the dominated and overlooked. The voice-over channels its conscience, and the archive footage gathers a variety of individual testimonies of harassment and humiliation.
Using and combining archive footage is at the core of Périot’s documentary method since his first short films. He excels in finding the right excerpts and putting them at the right time to bring his point home. Throughout Retour à Reims Périot rigorously follows one simple and brilliant rule: to display bits of scenes in which oppressed people speak for themselves, freely, without the interference of an intercessor or a contradictor. The recurring visual signature of the movie is seeing a news reporter holding a microphone to some anonymous working class man/woman, who speaks about his/her personal or professional situation. This repeated signature shot also acts as a statement, defining the movie itself: just hold the microphone and let the invisible and voiceless speak.
With this method, Périot composes a powerful and harsh portrait of both women’s conditions and workers’ conditions. The expansion of its examination over several generations (from World War II until the end of the 20th century) brings to light a terrible conclusion: the inexorable and unchanging reproduction of their oppression, unwillingly passed on by parents to their children. As the individual stories recounted by the voice-over and the archives pile up, it becomes more and more clear that through the ages women keep getting harassed (fear of rape and abortions, inequalities in the workplace, mental load) and that workers keep being exploited (their bodies slowly wrecked and their energy sucked up by the assembly line work) in the exact same way.
In the last act of the movie betrayal adds to oppression when Périot shows how the floor is confiscated by the politicians, professing to speak for the people. The difference in tone and sincerity from the first hour of the film is ruthless, as the oppressed do not see an inch of progress in their conditions, despite the electoral promises. Furthermore, Retour à Reims exposes how Eribon’s text was gloomily clairvoyant by examining how during the 1980s in France left-wing parties deceived their voters and far-right factions tried to take advantage of this disillusionment. His thoughts dating from 2009 on this subject detail precisely how history was going to repeat itself in France in the 2010s, with a new treachery by the left once in office, again paving the way to a rise of the far right. This reproduction, coming on top of the previous ones and occurring at a global level of national politics, is the final straw for Périot. To overcome all these endless and harmful reproductions he sees only one way out: revolution. The final minutes of the film let go of the rational, cold-blooded analysis which was the path followed until then, and give way to a call to immediate and strong action. Which is at the same time consistent with the spirit of bitterness prevailing in the rest of the movie, and drastically different regarding the means of expression.