There’s something peculiar about going to Cannes at a period full of workers protests in France only to watch a movie about the very same thing; although the real protests happening in France and the plot of the movie are widely different, it makes At War a very timely movie that is sure to resonate with a lot of people, especially in France but all over the world as well.
In At War, 1,100 employees of a factory are laid off after two years of heavy efforts from the workers (more hours of work for a lesser salary and no bonuses) that was supposed to keep the factory open but ended up amounting to nothing.
Led by Laurent Amédéo, Vincent Lindon (who previously won the Best Actor Award at Cannes in 2015 for a movie by the same director), the workers decide to fight to keep their jobs.
It is clear from the opening shot that Stéphane Brizé (The Measure Of A Man, A Woman’s Life), the director, wanted to be realistic: the very first scene is a television report that contextualizes everything – a device used regularly throughout the movie that helps see the struggle at different degrees: through Laurent Amédéo’s personal life, through the group of workers all with their different ideas, and through the mainstream media.
The realism is also felt through the very long takes and pacing of the movie, alternating between quiet scenes at home, never-ending debates, and protests in the streets, in front of the factory or in the company’s headquarters.
The hand-helm camera often puts the viewers inside the group of workers, in-between the extras watching the main actors talk or closing-up on the characters during violent protest scenes, accentuating a sense of realism – it is as if we are among them – but also claustrophobia, making us feel the reality of these peoples’ lives, the danger and distress by squeezing us between them and the police forces for example. This proximity makes us want to cheer or shout in anger for every one of their victories or losses.
The movie takes us to various degrees of the fight, workers making steps forward and then backwards, dissolution within the group, new elements that could change the outcome, and the soundtrack composed by Bertrand Blessing that accompanies this rollercoaster works wonderfully well as a call to action tinged with the possibility of an impending tragedy. Unfortunately, oftentimes the music arrives too abruptly and clashes with the realism aimed for by the director.
Thanks to the very convincing actors (almost all amateurs except the lead, Vincent Lindon – yet all equally exceptional) the movie is never a bore but could feel repetitive to some, as the audience is really, for a great part of the movie, just watching people argue.
The ending of At War is surprising and above all one that is about to make people talk, whether positively or negatively – again, it is sure to resonate with our current atmosphere regarding unemployment and workers protesting. While this movie will probably leave some people completely unaffected, even annoyed by its maybe too on the nose social commentary, I think it is still an important watch and a good critique of our capitalist system.