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The poisonous playbooks of populist politics are compellingly dramatized in Lucas Belvaux’s This Is Our Land (Chez Nous), a thinly veiled assault on France’s far-right Front National, which hits cinemas two months before the republic’s keenly contested presidential election. Starring Emilie Dequenne as a small-town nurse recruited as a mayoral candidate by a fictional reactionary party, this tenth feature by versatile Belgian director/co-writer Belvaux (best known for 2009 kidnapping-themed hit Rapt) has already stirred controversy at home and will likely translate such publicity into healthy box-office returns upon its Feb. 22 release.
Extensive theatrical play elsewhere in Europe and farther afield is also indicated for a film which — thanks in no small part to Dequenne’s down-to-earth appeal and a welcome streak of dry humor — works on a character and story basis in addition to serving as cautionary, topical tract. Indeed, even FN supporters grousing over the picture’s unflattering version of party leader Marine Le Pen (Catherine Jacob as steely Agnes Dorgelle) may find themselves drawn into the romantic subplot in which Dequenne’s Pauline reconnects with former high-school boyfriend Stephane (Guillaume Gouix).
Belvaux and co-writer Leroy — whose well-received 2011 crime-novel Le Bloc introduced several of these characters and themes — cleverly unfold parallel seductions. Pauline is wooed on a political level by her family’s suavely persuasive doctor Berthier (Andre Dussollier), a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary of the traditionalist old-school, and simultaneously on a personal level by Stephane, a reactionary of a more militaristic, even neo-Nazi background.
A twinkle-eyed hunk of a soccer coach who appears a perfect new dad for divorcee Pauline’s two kids, Stephane is revealed to us — but not Pauline — as dangerously violent early on, when he’s shown viciously beating up his much bigger sparring partner in the boxing ring. But while we also see Stephane conducting paramilitary activities with a bunch of uniformed goons, targeting racial minorities and immigrants, the film surprises by suggesting that he’s not beyond redemption. Could the love of a good woman like Pauline bring about a change of heart? The conflicted dude spells unambiguously bad news for Berthier and company, however, as Stephane’s sometime comrades seek to present a super-respectable front in their ruthless quest for electoral success.
The slick opportunism of the RNP (“Renewed Nation Party”) — as the FN equivalent is dubbed here — is laid bare in scenes during which candidates and volunteers are briefed on how to subtly play upon the prejudices and fears of potential supporters (“Nobody can resist a smile”). These sequences carry a plausible tang of authenticity, while the gradual process by which the “apolitical” Pauline — daughter of a committedly left-wing trade unionist — is drawn into the RNP’s web also feels convincingly organic.
It helps that ever-reliable veteran character actor Dussollier is on excellent form as Berthier, a trusted pillar of the community whose wily Machiavellian skills have been honed over decades. Berthier and Dorgelle — “old tricksters,” as Pauline’s dad dubs them — present the RNP as “free of the left or right” to gullible ears, exploiting real concerns over crumbling social infrastructure and rising crime in a multiracial, multicultural area close to the Belgian border.
Smoothly assembled on the technical side, This Is Our Land takes place against a semi-rural backdrop in the Pas de Calais, an area where the FN has found happy hunting grounds in recent years. Pierre Gantelmi d’Ille’s cinematography captures the feel of red-brick row houses and claustrophobic housing projects alike, though the choice of widescreen is only really justified when surveying the rolling paysage referred to in the English-language title.
Occasionally melodramatic and coincidence-reliant in its specific details, This Is Our Land works smoothly in terms of its overall story arcs, right up until the very last moments when Belvaux and Leroy baffling elect to conclude proceedings on a ham-fisted note. By this stage, however, the film has done more than enough to inspire spirited audience discussions in cinema lobbies — and beyond.
Production companies: Artemis Productions, Synecdoche
Cast: Emilie Dequenne, Guillaume Gouix, Andre Dussollier, Catherine Jacob, Anne Marivin, Charlotte Talpaert, Patrick Descamps
Director: Lucas Belvaux
Screenwriters: Lucas Belvaux, Jerome Leroy
Producers: David Frenkel, Patrick Quinet
Cinematographer: Pierric Gantelmi d’Ille
Production designer: Frederique Belvaux
Costume designer: Dorothee Guiraud
Editor: Ludo Troch
Composer: Frederic Vercheval
Casting directors: Okinawa Guerard, Christine Duquesne
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Voices [Big Screen competition])
Sales: Le Pacte, Paris
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