I've really been enjoying these encore performances and highlights from the French Film Festival UK as part of their virtual fff@home screenings this month. We've already taken a look at Emmanuel Mouret's Love Affairs, Anne Fontaine's Night Shift, and Jean-Paul Salomé's Mama Weed, but now it's time to reflect on what I would say is probably the most important film of the festival: Lucas Belvaux's powerful and confronting Home Front (Des Hommes).
This is a difficult review to write ... I know very little about The Algerian War or France's part in it - although I see it cropping up more and more in films such as Nicole Garcia's A View of Love (Un balcon sur la mer) - yet this seems to be common of most colonial countries who have a limited understanding of their own dark history; let alone someone else's. Reading about it now, there seems to be some parallels between what happened in Algeria with the French and the United States' involvement in The Vietnam War, particularly in terms of the horrors and atrocities visited upon both sides. These were dirty wars - filled with torture and degradation - but then, how can you say that any war is clean?
According to FFFUK's Trailer of the Week video, Home Front is intended as a companion piece to director Lucas Belvaux's previous film, This Is Our Land (Chez Nous) which starred César Award winner Émilie Dequenne (Love Affairs) as a young nurse seduced by the ideals of the far-right National Front. While that film focused on the state of present-day France, Home Front is about reconciling its colonial history as seen through the eyes of those who lived through it. Despite being a work of fiction, adapted from the novel The Wound (Des Hommes) by Laurent Mauvignier, the film starts to play out like a documentary - particularly in later scenes where archival footage is interspersed with voiceovers from the main characters.
Set in a small French village, Home Front tells the story of cousins who still live under the shadow of their time in the Algerian War. Rabut has developed a veneer of respectability as one of the local councillors; whereas Bernard (disparagingly referred to as Feu-de-Bois) is the town drunk, a solitary and violent figure who lives on the outskirts of a village that has rejected him. He comes into town for his sister Solange's birthday - an event everyone will be attending - and is chased away for his belligerent attitude. This leads him to getting drunk again, and terrorising a young immigrant family, which is the final straw for the local mayor and the gendarmerie. They will confront him in the morning, but first our characters have a long night ahead.
After this initial, shocking introduction to our cast, the rest of the story is told through voiceovers and flashbacks, starting with Solange (Catherine Frot) as she reads through the letters Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) sent her during his time away. Contrary to the figure we've just witnessed in the opening scenes, we're introduced to a more sensitive and devout Bernard, who is conflicted by both his Catholic guilt and the events taking place around him. He's still clinging to a morality that seems out of step with his fellow soldiers, including his cousin Rabut (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who was not always as virtuous as his modern-day persona might suggest.
Throughout a sleepless night, the three individuals recall that time, although ultimately it is the story of Rabut and Bernard, and how they come to reconcile the horrors visited upon them. The two cousins were never friends - especially after Bernard's heartless reaction to his sister's death at a young age (and from which he never truly recovers) - but they still gravitate towards one another while stationed together during the conflict. They witness terrible things, carry out terrible deeds, and eventually see half their unit wiped out (in part due to the bitterness that has been festering between them). It paints a more sympathetic portrait of Bernard, and a more balanced view of Rabut, which makes you question your first impressions of these two men. Their biggest difference is in how they deal with their past in the present day.
Gérard Depardieu and Jean-Pierre Darroussin carry suitable gravitas as the elder Bernard (Feu-de-Bois) and Rabut. A large portion of the film is carried on the strength of their voiceovers and the anguished looks on their faces as they wrestle with their inner thoughts, which is an impressive feat in itself. Similarly, Catherine Frot neatly straddles the line between engaged local and concerned sister as the tensions with Feu-de-Bois start to boil over. As the one person Bernard really confided in through his letters from Algeria, she has a unique perspective on him, coupled with some small understanding of the horrors they faced. Although he spared her the gory details (something which is reflected in the film itself), he exposed his pain and sadness to her more than anyone.
The rest of the film is told through flashbacks, and while all of the performances are incredible, Yoann Zimmer deserves to be singled out for his portrayal of the young conflicted Bernard. Where Gérard Depardieu is repellant in the early parts of the film as the beastly Feu-de-Bois, it's Zimmer who humanises him as the young idealist who can't reconcile his ideals with his surroundings. The film presents a view of war in which there are no heroes, and atrocities were committed on both sides. While the argument 'there are bad people on both sides' has rightfully been called into question in recent times, the film doesn't shy away from that fact, or from calling into question France's part in everything. As a country they have a lot to answer for, and it seems to be Belvaux's belief (alongside many others) that art is one way in which to address it and hold a mirror up to people.
As I said in the opening paragraph, to me this is probably the most important film of the festival. It's not an easy watch, and I spent the last 15-20 minutes blinking through tears, but it's vital viewing for those interested in French cinema and culture. Home Front is a stark reminder of the reasons why I struggle with the term 'francophile' and the idea that I love all things French. It's an easy touchpoint, and certainly a good summary of my feelings towards the country and its people, but there are certain aspects of their (and my own Anglo-Australian) history which I don't agree with and haven't come to terms with yet. It seems to be something many of us in former (?) colonial countries are wrestling with, which makes this film both uniquely French and something universal.