Back to Reims (Fragments)
September 2021 (NYFF59)
Even the word inequality is a euphemism that mitigates the reality of the crude violence of exploitation.
– Didier Eribon, Back to Reims
In 2009, the Parisian intellectual Didier Eribon released Back to Reims, an autobiographical work which traces the return of the writer to his eponymous hometown after the death of his conservative and homophobic father. Eribon, being progressive and gay, one could see why reconciliation would be difficult, if not impossible.
The book received critical acclaim from European and American readers, with an English translation released in 2013 via MIT Press. Back to Reims synthesizes the personal and the political, using the transformation of Eribon’s family from oppressed workers into members of the Communist Party, and ultimately the voters of the far-right French National Front party as a backdrop to tell the story. history of the French working class and the post-Cold period The world of war as a whole.
At 59 of this yeare New York Film Festival, French director Jean-Gabriel Périot, himself homosexual and from the working class, created an adaptation of Eribon’s book. The film is part of the Currents program, which aims to paint a “more complete picture of contemporary cinema with an emphasis on new and innovative forms and voices”.
Périot’s film avoids the notion of a simple narrative adaptation in favor of combining a voiceover by actor Adèle Haenel with archival footage, allowing an investigation into the representation of the French working class in cinema and on the television. Haenel here is a brilliant choice for the narrator, as she, in addition to being known for her acting roles in films such as Celine Sciamma’s 2019 film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is also a political figure who revealed how she was sexually harassed as a 12-year-old actress by director Christophe Ruggia.
With Haenel’s voice underlying the collision of images projected on the screen, the focus is on the evolution of gender and sexuality politics in French culture. It ranges from the abuse women suffered at the hands of fellow citizens for their romantic relationships with Germans during WWII, to their exposure in arduous and alienating factory jobs later in the 20th century.
Back to Reims strikes its strongest note in its foreknowledge. As we follow the shifting loyalties of French working-class voters, from left to far right, we find ourselves with a story all too familiar in our time. From the popularity and disastrous consequences of the conservative and imperialist policies of US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair almost two decades ago to the resurgence of forces of nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarianism across the world in recent years, Periot’s film challenges audiences to imagine a world in which class solidarity can once again be rooted in material concerns as opposed to myths about the racialized “other”.
The film reminds me of François Cusset’s How the world has shifted to the right (2018) which details what “ideological, cultural and socio-economic seeds” gave birth to the “rotten fruit” that is contemporary far-right politics. Cusset argues that a leftist of the 1960s, whether Marxist, Leninist or Maoist, would find it impossible to identify what we consider today to be “left” policies or political parties.
The epilogue of Back to Rimes warns that it is “not easy to get rid of lasting political ties, and that new ties cannot be forged overnight …”, but what is needed is a “new vision of the world and life itself ”. In an era of constant crisis, endless political crises, climate catastrophe and the seemingly endless Covid-19 pandemic, ours is an era of constant upheaval. In this upheaval, we must respond to Cusset’s call to “reinvent everything”.