'Our Defeats' ('Nos defaites'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
An intriguing if somewhat repetitive inquiry into France’s leftist legacy.

French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Periot ('A German Youth') premiered his latest feature in the Berlinale Forum.

French director Jean-Gabriel Periot captivatingly explored the convergence of movies and politics in his 2015 assemblage A German Youth, with used archive footage to chronicle the filmmaking activities of Germany’s far-left factions throughout the 1960s and 70s.

In his latest feature, Our Defeats (Nos defaites), Periot focuses on his home country, working with a class of high school kids to scour France’s leftist legacy through reenactments of famous films and documentaries from the May ‘68 epoch, then interrogating the students about their meaning. The result is a movie that offers up an interesting now vs. then comparison, placing today’s troubles in the light of past struggles, but also grows repetitive in its systematic juxtaposition of old and new.

Periot plants his camera at the Lycee Romain Rolland in Ivry-sur-Seine outside of Paris (also the setting for Claire Simon’s recent Young Solitude), where he follows a film class through a program of acting, directing and discussing excerpts from pivotal leftist works like Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, Marin Karmitz’ Comrades, Chris Marker’s A Bientot, J’espere and Jacques Willemont’s La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder. (The latter film was already re-explored in Herve Le Roux’s excellent 1997 documentary, Reprise, which makes it a film within a film within a film here.)

The recreations, which are rather well-acted by the students, are shot in grainy black-and-white, with Periot then switching to color when he grills the class about the political connotations of the various scenes they have performed. “What’s a capitalist regime?” “What are unions?” “Why would you go on strike?” “What is politics?” are some of the questions he tosses at them. These are not necessarily easy concepts to grasp, and the students often have trouble articulating their responses, especially at a time when leftist ideals have much less sway in France than they did fifty years ago.

For most of the running time, the tellingly titled Our Defeats illustrates how the majority of the battles fought by the French left from May ’68 onwards have been losing ones — to the point that most of the students no longer think they’re worth fighting at all. (“I’m too young for any commitment,” one of them explains.) Periot’s method of revealing all of this can become rather tedious to watch, and for viewers who don’t immediately recognize the movies being reenacted the director fails to provide any real context or even title cards.

What partially saves his movie is an epilogue-like ending where the classmates of the Lycee Romain Rolland are suddenly faced with an actual call-to-arms, blockading their school after a fellow student is arrested for tagging up one of the buildings. Although it comes too late in the edit — Periot should have considered threading the event throughout the narrative, which would have added some necessary tension — the incident throws light on everything that preceded it. And while it doesn’t quite result in a victory, nor in a deepening of the students’ political engagement (especially vis-à-vis capitalism, which is as rampant in France as it is elsewhere), the finale does prove that both on and off the screen, the fight still goes on.   

Production company: Envie de Tempete Productions
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Director, editor: Jean-Gabriel Periot
Producer: Frederic Dubreuil

In French
94 minutes