‘Merci Patron!’: Film Review
The head of fashion powerhouse LVMH is the target of this French activist documentary.
As another Paris Fashion Week begins to wind down, French multinational LVMH — which owns such luxury brands as Dior, Celine, Kenzo, Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs — and its billionaire boss, Bernard Arnault, may have more to worry about than what’s happening on the runway.
After three weeks in theaters, the anti-LVMH documentary Merci Patron! (Thanks Boss!) has become a sleeper hit in France, raking in nearly 100,000 admissions in a release that will soon be expanded to several hundred screens.
Made on a tiny budget (about $200K, or the price of about 60 Louis Vuitton City Steamer bags) by activist-journalist turned director Francois Ruffin, the film uses a very Michael Moore-style approach to not only point out some of Arnault’s rather questionable business practices over the years, but to literally blackmail him onscreen for ruining the lives of two textile workers whose jobs were outsourced to more cost-friendly countries in Eastern Europe.
The 67-year-old Arnault — who is France’s richest man, with an estimated net worth of $37.2 billion in 2015 — has already been the subject of several scandals in recent years, including his underhanded attempt to take over family-run fashion giant Hermes and a purported plan to relocate to Belgium for tax purposes, the latter of which prompted French daily Liberation to put him on their front page with the headline: "Casse-toi riche con!" (“Get lost, rich asshole!”).
Ruffin, who founded the ultra-left publication Fakir and crashes LVMH shareholders meetings wearing a t-shirt that says “I heart Bernard,” details a few major grievances against Arnault and his empire in the film’s expeditious opening reel.
First, he explains how LVMH acquired one of its top brands, Dior, by buying out the holding company Boussac in the 1980s — only to sell off or shut down most of Boussac’s other businesses despite promises to retain them, resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of job losses. After, Ruffin shows how salesmen at Kenzo (which LVMH bought in 1993) claim that their suits are 100% locally made, while a hidden camera uncovers that they’re actually manufactured in Poland and Bulgaria, where labor is significantly cheaper.
While such practices are widespread in the fashion world and not at all unique to LVMH, Ruffin goes from macro to micro to concentrate on one blue-collar couple — the jovial Serge and Jocelyne Klur — who worked at a now-defunct Kenzo plant in northern France and have been unemployed for several years now. They live on only a few euros a day, with barely enough money to feed themselves and a slew of unpaid debts that may result in their house being seized by the local huissier.
Rather than simply telling their sob story, Ruffin decides to help them fight back by penning threatening letters to Arnault on the Klurs’ behalf, claiming that they’ll go to the press about their predicament unless the billionaire pays them the equivalent of $40,000 and helps them find new jobs. Astonishingly enough, Arnault dispatches one of his security chiefs to meet with the couple in their home, with Ruffin setting up hidden cameras and microphones to record a series of highly shady transactions that reveal just how far the LVMH chief is willing to go in order to protect his public image.
The result is both surprising in terms of the final outcome, and at times quite funny, especially when Ruffin has to constantly school the easygoing Klurs on how to toughen up and stick it to the man. (The couple seems to go along with the plan for the hell of it — they literally have nothing to lose.) Other moments can be a bit grating as Ruffin puts himself at the forefront of the action, such as in a scene where we see him reading the story of Robin Hood to his kids and explaining to them how daddy is basically doing the same thing.
Despite such stabs at martyrdom, which is something Moore can be accused of as well, you can’t fault the director for genuinely helping a few good people while exposing a mogul who can sometimes come across as the French equivalent of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. And while Merci Patron! will in no way solve the nation's many economic woes, or the problems of the luxury fashion business in general, it deserves credit for having the courage to try and outscheme a first-class schemer — and for getting away with it.
Tech credits are low-fi if lively, including a titular theme song recorded in 1972 by popular French comic ensemble, Les Charlots.
Production companies: Mille et une productions, Fakir
Director: Francois Ruffin
Editor: Cecile Dubois
Not rated, 90 minutes