In France, like in much of Europe and the U.S., political discourse has become more polarized in recent years. The recovery from the recession is slow, unemployment is still an issue, and new refugees from Africa and the Middle East arrive while some second-generation immigrants still have trouble assimilating. The fear of terror attacks is real, and one of the main political debates centers on how—or, in some cases, even if—a society can remain open while protecting its citizens from potential threats.
How much is at stake in France’s upcoming elections has become evident again in recent weeks as controversy has erupted over the new arthouse film This Is Our Land (Chez nous). The political drama hit French screens in late February, just two months before the country chooses a new president. The debate stems from a supporting character named Agnes Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), a blonde leader of a far-right party associated with nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment, much like the real-life politician and presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen.
Members of Le Pen’s party, the National Front, were quick to denounce the film sight unseen. Florian Philippot, one of the party’s vice presidents, admitted in a Europe1 radio interview on January 1 that he had only watched the trailer but insisted the film was “clearly against the National Front” and shouldn’t be released so close to the elections. Meanwhile, the movie’s Belgian-born director, Lucas Belvaux, has maintained that This Is Our Land is more about “populist discourse” in general and is not an anti-National Front “militant film.”
French audiences have finally been able to see This Is Our Land for themselves in the last couple of weeks. Viewers seem positive if not quite ecstatic, with almost 900 users of the popular website AlloCiné awarding the film an average of 3.1/5 stars. (This came after a minor scandal around opening day, when the website was flooded with half-star reviews, all from new users, including from an account created by someone whose avatar looked suspiciously like the real-life assistant of Philippot.)
The reviews in the French critical community were similarly solid but not stellar, much like the first international reactions. Variety called it “too baldly calculated and on-message to rank with Belvaux’s best,” but admitted that the film is “a shoo-in for stateside distribution.” Many of these reviews, however, haven’t really tackled some of the most pressing questions the film has raised. Is This Is Our Land actually anti-National Front? Could it potentially influence the elections? And how does it fare as a snapshot of where French politics are today?
The first thing that needs to be noted about This Is Our Land is that, while politics are clearly a part of the story’s context and background, the film is largely a character study. Its protagonist is Pauline (Emilie Dequenne), a nurse and single mom of two kids who also looks after her aging father, a former communist worker. She’s a caring, working-class woman in northern France who is struggling, like millions of others, to make ends meet and hoping for a better future.
Pauline is lifted out of her relative obscurity by an older, admired doctor, Berthier (André Dussollier). As Belvaux suggests several times, familiarity is important in politics and in shaping voter sympathy. Berthier sees in Pauline a respectable and approachable candidate for the upcoming mayoral elections in their fictional town for his fictional party, the National Popular Rally (a name borrowed, incidentally, from a short-lived, French pro-Nazi party from 1941). Pauline knows of Berthier’s reputation as an “old Fascist,” but his profession has earned him a measure of esteem, and he helped Pauline’s mother when she was dying of cancer.
Though Pauline is initially almost apolitical, Belvaux charts her political awakening—though “manipulation” might be more accurate—under the influence of first Berthier and then also the Le Pen-like Dorgelle, who eventually campaigns with her for mayor. This Is Our Land is so fascinating in part because it shows how easily a regular person can become attached to a cause they only half-heartedly believe in at the outset if they feel their involvement can make a real difference. Though Pauline’s sudden activism is quite drastic, it’s hard to watch this film and not be reminded of the deluge of articles after the recent U.S. elections that tried to understand the re-energized Trump voter.
Belvaux wrote the film with the novelist Jerome Leroy, whose 2011 book Le Bloc first introduced several ideas and characters reworked in This Is Our Land. In both stories, Pauline finds herself suspended between two opposing political poles. On one side, Berthier represents the intellectual and well-off cadre of right-wing politics. On the other is Stephane (Guillaume Gouix), a childhood flame of Pauline’s that she has started dating again, who represents the brutal, almost neo-Nazi side of the party base. Stephane, nicknamed Stanko (after his surname, Stankowiak), has an uncontrollable temper in the boxing ring and spends time with lowlifes who pester and beat up foreign-looking people.
Even more than Dorgelle, Berthier seems to be the brains behind all the necessary politicking, at least on a regional level. Though the doctor used to be on Stanko’s side and might be near to him ideologically, he’s become smart about how things work in local and national politics. He understands that a certain sense of propriety is necessary to be elected, so he tries to keep Stanko away from Pauline, his party’s poster girl whose image needs to remain spotless. There’s also a chilling scene in which new party inductees are taught how to deal with demonstrators, protestors, and journalists who ask pesky questions, and what they can and cannot say (they’re instructed to avoid the word “Arabs” and to use “riffraff” instead).
While some, including one of the National Front’s vice presidents, Steeve Briois, have accused Belvaux of presenting a caricature of an extreme-right party, the director actually depicts one that is savvy—that knows how to play the political game and no longer wants to remain on the sidelines. Through characters like the violent, bigoted chauvinist Stanko, This Is Our Land acknowledges the dangers of the growing popularity of far-right politics in general. But most of Dorgelle’s party’s members are regular people who are seduced by the more placid and somewhat more polished surface of the National Popular Rally, which talks about values and progress and national identity and which carefully weighs its words.
This Is Our Land’s insights into how a far-right political party can gain working-class support could apply to more than just the National Front or even France or Europe (some of the parallels with the rise of Trumpism are uncanny). But even so, Belvaux’s claim that the film is not strictly about the National Front is at least a little disingenuous. The blonde Dorgelle not only looks like Le Pen, but her father also founded the film’s fictional party, much like Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, did. There might be a few too many coincidences like that to fully support the idea that Dorgelle is just any French right-wing leader.
Another apparent parallel: Le Pen has been responsible for somewhat softening the image of the National Front, moving it away from outright racism to more semantically acceptable forms of xenophobia. (She even ousted her own father in 2015 to help make the party more attractive for more people.) Belvaux’s film suggests what might have been happening behind the scenes to bring about this change and to what extent even apolitical people can buy into carefully composed rhetoric. That said, Dorgelle remains a supporting character throughout the film, and she doesn’t get either her comeuppance or moment of joy. This Is Our Land’s ending is squarely focused on Pauline, and her struggles with matters of the heart, more than anything political.
Belvaux’s own real-life dislike of the far-right has been documented, but This Is Our Land isn’t the French fiction equivalent of a film by Michael Moore. To the filmmaker’s credit, the well-written feature conspicuously doesn’t offer up a “better” left-wing candidate with the kinds of ideas and manners that audiences should feel inspired by. Instead, Belvaux constantly hints at how nationalism and isolationism are in opposition to this interconnected and increasingly open world. The surname of the radicalized Stankowiak, for example, suggests he has non-French roots himself; in another scene, a teenager making anti-Muslim videos has Japanese anime paintings on his wall. Throughout the film, the characters eat Italian, Chinese, and Moroccan food. The message is subtle but clear nonetheless: To insist that France can only be for the French makes no sense in a globalized world. And it’s a lesson that could resonate with audiences beyond France as well.
Whether This Is Our Land will influence the outcome of the upcoming elections is of course hard to gauge. The Conquest, a fiction film about the tragicomic rise to power of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy was released in May 2011, but it’s unclear whether it was a factor in Sarkozy’s subsequent loss in the 2012 elections. That turn of events could at least explain why some National Front politicians were worried about Belvaux’s project, especially with its release just weeks before ballots are due. The box-office results of both were, like the reviews, fair but not outstanding, suggesting the political controversy surrounding them didn’t hurt or particularly help.
That said, This Is Our Land has at least changed one mind. Though Le Pen herself has kept quiet about the brouhaha, Philippot apparently went to see This Is Our Land and has completely changed his stance on its effectiveness. Belvaux’s “class contempt” was so complete, the politician has said, that the film could actually help win votes for the National Front. It’s the kind of real-life ending that proves that truth is sometimes indeed stranger than fiction.