The rise of far-right nationalism in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere has become a sign of our times — a sign of fear and loathing for many, but one of pride for a growing minority that, in the last French presidential election, captured over a third of the vote. In fact, the minority no longer looks like a minority at all.
In their new documentary The Tie (La Cravate), directors Étienne Chaillou and Mathias Théry focus with razor-sharp precision on Bastien, one such foot soldier in France’s burgeoning far-right movement, tracking him around the country as he campaigns for candidate Marine Le Pen in the run-up to the 2017 vote. What they reveal is a young man whose deep-seated political convictions were, at least in part, shaped by his life in the economically strapped region of Picardy — where Le Pen’s National Front party (FN), now renamed the National Rally, has a sizable following. They also reveal someone willing to face a certain level of ridicule and ostracism, including getting fired from a promising job, to defend the ideas he believes in.
In a surprising way, the filmmakers manage to humanize Bastien while never shying away from his more problematic opinions, especially his anti-immigrant stance — the ideological core that brings many Le Pen supporters together — and, at one point, what appears to be a blunt case of racism, although even that is complicated by an incident Bastien doesn’t voluntarily bring about. We wind up empathizing with him, especially his struggles to find a place within the oppressive hierarchy of the FN, all the while refusing to accept his politics (or at least that’s the case with this reviewer).
The Tie — the title refers to Bastien’s efforts to dress the part of a professional political operative — does something rare at a time when many of us tend to demonize members of the far right, even as their parties continue to gain ground worldwide. Instead of jumping to conclusions and tossing their subject into a “basket of deplorables” (to cite one infamous example of political bias — although Trump supporters and FN supporters are not necessarily the same thing), Chaillou and Théry open up their own basket and ask us to look closely at one person inside. To judge by the reaction at a recent Paris screening, where the packed theater was glued to the screen from start to finish, this has become a necessary exercise.
The filmmakers, whose previous movie was a rather cheeky if insightful documentary on same-sex marriage called The Sociologist and the Teddy Bear (yes, it involved talking stuffed animals), find a different working method this time around. After spending six months following Bastien as he campaigned in the north — in an election where Le Pen would lose to Emmanuel Macron, although at nearly 34 percent of the vote she scored the highest FN score in French history on a presidential ballot — the directors bring their subject back a year later to review a long written account of his exploits.
Seated alone in a shadowy room that looks like the setting for either a confessional or a police interrogation, Bastien calmly reads the story of his life while a voiceover recites the text aloud. At times, the subject interrupts the shoot to make a correction, or, more often than not, to react to what he’s been reading with a friendly smile or laugh. Clearly, Chaillou and Théry do not want to misrepresent Bastien, allowing him to shape his own biography and get the facts straight. In one case, he finds a major omission that not only changed the course of his life, but laid the groundwork for his future activism. (Without spoiling it, let’s just say the incident he was involved in is, sadly, a regular occurrence in the U.S.)
The readings are accompanied by footage of Bastien’s progressive involvement in Le Pen’s crusade, from handing out flyers around the city of Amiens, where the local FN chapter is based, to attending meetings in Paris and other parts of France along with conseiller régional Eric Richermoz — a young and highly ambitious political operative who brings a millennial’s marketing savvy to the campaign. The two form an unlikely pair, with the suave Eric showing the rough, middle-class Bastien, who works full-time at a laser tag facility in order to make ends meet, how to navigate the FN’s elite circles of power.
As we get closer to election day, Bastien gets more comfortable donning a suit and tie, shaking hands and hanging out with the bigwigs, including FN vp Florian Philippot (who wound up splitting with Le Pen after the election to form his own party, called The Patriots, which Richermoz would also join). At the same time, he becomes dismayed by his fellow party members’ endless backstabbing and political maneuvering. They only seem to be in it for the power, glory and potential job opportunities, whereas he’s a true believer in the cause, as evidenced by a late scene where he attends a Le Pen rally in Lille with all the euphoria of an Elvis fan finally getting to see The King perform live. No matter what his disappointment may be in his party or its vote tallies, Bastien will not be dissuaded.
“I think I’m a good person, I hope,” he blurts out toward the end of his long session in front of the camera, after the election’s been lost but the far right, although fractured into two, continues to make its headway throughout France. It’s a question the viewer asks during much of The Tie, as we’re both moved by Bastien’s difficult journey toward self-realization and disturbed by his commitment to a cause marked by intolerance and xenophobia, no matter how much Le Pen tries to sugarcoat her politics through a “de-demonizing” strategy. Bastien’s warmth and innocence may be disarming, and he may come across at times as a big goofy kid with a good heart, but behind his smile there lies a darkness.
Production company: Quark Productions
Directors/screenwriters/cinematographers/editors: Étienne Chaillou, Mathias Théry
Producers: Juliette Guigon, Patrick Winocour
In French, 97 minutes