The great French actor Vincent Lindon has a special talent for embodying what could be a paradoxical persona: the outstanding Everyman. In “At War,” the fourth feature he’s made with the director Stéphane Brizé, Lindon plays a workers’ leader at an auto plant facing closure.
The movie begins with staged television news footage; Lindon is a face in the crowd, but one your view is constantly drawn to. His blue eyes are Paul Newman-like in their magnetism, but the rest of his face is more rough-hewn. He is solidly built, with a commanding physicality, but he hasn’t a speck of movie-star polish on him. Lindon elevates a movie just by being in it.
And this movie is a tough, bracing one for the most part. The auto plant closure means 1,100 people out of work. Lindon’s character, Laurent Amédéo, is stalwart in his leadership. He insists the rank and file not accept severances, but fight for the plant to stay open.
In negotiations with management, workers are told, yes, the plant makes a profit, but not enough of one. “I can’t continue delivering balance sheets like that,” an accountant says with a shrug. From the local bean counters to the head honchos — the company itself is German, and the French government has no authority over its operations — the workers receive soft-spoken condescension.
“At War” portrays capitalism as a vampiric system that drains workers of time, energy, initiative and more, and then disposes of them.
Laurent strategizes and stages worker actions well enough to gain audiences with executives ever higher up the chain. But these meetings prove not even to be pyrrhic victories. One encounter proves a disaster, with a near riot that threatens the physical safety of a chief executive. Not that Brizé intends to elicit sympathy for that fellow. The movie’s bone-dry, cleareyed depiction of calm corporate callousness is relentless, and in this sequence Brizé depicts the outraged response to it as righteous.
The plant’s inevitable closure leads to nasty conflicts among workers. A female labor rep close to Laurent is accused of sleeping with him. The situation takes a toll on Laurent’s home life, too. As his daughter prepares to deliver a child of her own, he’s confronted with the puzzle of his own future.
The movie opens with a Bertolt Brecht quote: “Whoever fights can lose. Whoever does not fight, has already lost.” Brizé’s scrupulously detailed and seamlessly realistic depictions of this struggle demonstrate the truth of this axiom with impressive force.
But Brizé does not land the ending. Intending, you suppose, a shattering provocation (and the events that occur in the finale do echo actual ones in France), he instead delivers a shock that throws the entire movie off balance. To this viewer, it is a spectacular whiff.
Not rated. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.
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