‘The Anarchists’ (‘Les Anarchistes’): Cannes Review

It’s love in the time of anarchy, but the sparks don’t always fly

Tahar Rahim and Adele Exarchopoulos star in Elie Wajeman’s historical thriller.

Assembling a top-notch cast, loads of atmosphere and plenty of intriguing ideas into what could have been a powerful tale of love and revolution in turn-of-the-century Paris, The Anarchists (Les Anarchistes) nonetheless fails to ignite the way it should.

This sophomore effort from writer-director Elie Wajeman takes place more than a century earlier than his breakout debut, Aliyah, but never brings the same level of tension, even if the narrative treads in a similar moral gray zone where individual ambitions are compromised by social norms. Proficient if not quite explosive turns from Cannes darlings Tahar Rahim and Adele Exarchopoulos should push this Critics’ Week opener into a few offshore markets, though the insurrection will play best at home.

It’s 1899 and Paris has never seemed grimmer. After making his way from poor orphan to well-read brigadier, the quietly charming Jean Albertini (Rahim) is ordered by his superior officer (Cedric Kahn, effective but underused) to infiltrate a band of young anarchists gaining traction in the working-class quarters of the city.

Jean quickly ditches his chambermaid girlfriend and gets hired at a local nail factory, whose punishingly loud machines and 11-hour workday provide living proof that the French proletariat is clearly getting the short end of the baguette. He soon befriends fellow laborers Biscuit (Karim Leklou, memorable) and Elisee (the promising Swann Arlaud), convincing them of his anarchist inclinations by dropping a Mikhail Bakunin reference and showing how he’d like to stick it to the man.

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Wajeman and co-writer Gaelle Mace (Grand Central) spend a lot of time in these early sections setting up each character’s political m.o., which means there’s plenty of speechifying during the first hour but not nearly enough action or suspense. Gradually the conflicts emerge when Jean moves into the collective apartment run by bourgeois writer, Marie-Louise (Sarah Le Picard), shacking up next door to Elisee and his brooding girlfriend, Judith (Exarchopoulos), with whom he begins an affair.

There’s never much explanation as to why the two fall for one another so quickly — Jean simply calls her “beautiful” at one point — nor as to why Elisee never suspects anything is going on, even if the illicit lovers are doing it just down the hall. Wajeman seems to be trying to create an inner dilemma between Jean’s body and mind, but his desire for Judith tends to come across as more superficial than passionate — although that may be the point considering he’s still supposed to be acting undercover.

Regardless, the romantic drama doesn’t carry the weight it needs to service the rest of the story, even if Rahim (A Prophet) and Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) are engaging enough in their respective roles. But it’s actually the friendship between Jean, Elisee and Biscuit — as well as the more prickly relationship he has with the group’s de facto leader (Guillaume Gouix, compelling) — that proves to be more narratively potent, setting up a clash that comes to a head during the final reels.

Despite the general lack of verve, Wajeman and his production team offer up a few memorable set-pieces, including the opening factory scenes and a series of robberies the gang pulls off in order to fund their operations. Captured in cool widescreen colors by DP David Chizallet (Mustang), with production designer Denis Hager keeping the interiors drab and claustrophobic, such moments have a gritty realism that makes the film feel less like a period piece than a contemporary morality tale.

Along with the craft contributions, Wajeman’s decision to mix a traditional score (by Gloria Jacobsen) with a selection of modern music tracks — such as The Kinks’ dreamy ballad, “I Go To Sleep” — also helps to give his movie some edge. The effect can be jarring at first, but like the performances and dialogues — including a dig at the French Socialist Party that could have been directed at current President Francois Holland — there’s a lot about The Anarchists that
feels closer to today than to the late 19th century, as if the crew had been sent back in time to shoot a documentary. (For a more successful take on this idea, see Peter WatkinsLa Commune.)

As the net begins closing in on Jean and the others during the last half-hour, some of what Wajeman was setting up earlier begins to bear fruit. The finale is filled with more ambiguity than in your typical thriller, and we’re left with the idea that the political and personal rarely intertwine in productive ways, while revolutions of the heart are perhaps those that count most. But it’s a case of too little, too late in a film that could have used a few more sticks of dynamite to really set the screen on fire.

Production company: 24 Mai Productions
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Adele Exarchopoulos, Swann Arlaud, Guillaume Gouix, Karim Leklou
Director: Elie Wajeman
Screenwriters: Elie Wajeman, Gaelle Mace
Producer: Lola Gans
Director of photography: David Chizallet
Production designer: Denis Hager
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Francois Quiquere
Composer: Gloria Jacobsen
Casting director: Judith Chalier
International sales: Wild Bunch

No rating, 101 minutes