“AT WAR” (“En guerre”)
A Factory Strike in the South of France
The workers of try to unite to strike against in Stephane Brize’s “At War”, a film about a long and arduous factory strike pitting the unions against the powers that be. Vincent Lindon stars in this docu-style drama and gives an intense and physical performance. The viewer is thrown into the action alongside the film’s protagonists who are fighting for jobs that seem to be already lost.
Lindon’s intense and very physical turn, although in At War his character is a leader rather than a follower — yet it’s such a position that makes his predicament all the more trying. He is the pugnacious union spokesman of an auto parts manufacture in southwest France, Laurent Amedeo and he does not mince words. When the film begins, he’s leading the strike against his company, Perrin Industrie, which employs 1,100 workers and is on the verge of shutting down. Through a mix of news reports, meetings and protests, we learn that two years earlier, Perrin’s boss (Jacques Borderie) had promised to keep the factory open in exchange for salary freezes, but then reneged on that. With no other job prospects in the area, Laurent and the other employees have no choice but to try, by any means necessary, to stop the only source of livelihood from going under.
We are ready for a long and grueling fight between labor and management— a war in which both sides enter the trenches and do not let go, wearing one another down with their tenaciousness. On the labor side, Laurent and his right-hand gal, Melanie (Melanie Rover who is an actual worker like most of the actors), struggle to keep the strike going as their colleagues begin to lose faith, especially when the company offers them payouts in exchange for their cooperation. On the side of management side, there are the French executives, who claim to have no control over the situation, as well as the big bosses over in Germany.
The battle lines are drawn during the film’s first half and there are lengthy discussions. We do not learn much about Laurent except that he’s divorced and his daughter is expecting a child. The other workers, meanwhile, are only seen on site.
“At War” focuses on the details of labor laws and negotiations during the first hour and this makes the victories and defeats suffered by Laurent and his team more intense. For every fight they win, they seem to lose much more, and the film’s most memorable sequences show the physical and psychological costs of waging a conflict where the odds always seem to be stacked against the strikers. The workers are constantly taken advantage of so that the owners can reap higher profits. With a supporting nonprofessional cast and news footage, the film seems to be more of a documentary than fiction.
“At War” is of the moment and the drama instead uses timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points. It is unique with its devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic Despite some genuine drama, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
The film is mostly debates and meetings inside boardrooms, factory floors or outside the gates. Brizé directs these scenes with a handheld camera, shallow focus and medium shots, all designed to keep the tension constant and riveting. The music is intense and the use of drums to evokes the sense of warfare.