Tuesday’s premiere of French director Stéphane Brizé’s At War in competition at Cannes has come and gone without attracting much notice. Sure, the film is not a long-awaited return, and the cast is hardly flashy, but the lack of critical attention is still odd considering Vincent Lindon won the best actor award at Cannes in 2015 for his performance in Brizé’s The Measure of a Man. On average, the few reviews of this depiction of a confrontation between workers and management at a factory in southwestern France are running neither hot nor cold.
As Jessica Kiang notes in Variety, At War marks Brizé and Lindon’s fourth collaboration. All four films “are richly attentive portraits of working men fighting to protect their interpersonal relationships and to retain dignity and self-determination, in tightrope circumstances that benefit from no social safety net.” And with his portrayal of a union leader, “Lindon adds another rivetingly real characterization to his muscular everyman repertoire.”
Another admirer of the new film is Jordan Mintzer, who suggests in the Hollywood Reporter that if The Measure of a Man “seemed to tread in the waters of the Dardennes, following one man’s long struggle to find employment in the French boondocks, this movie feels closer to Ken Loach or to early Paul Greengrass, depicting the plight of laborers with a gripping, handheld verve.” The cinematographer, by the way, is Eric Dumont, and the first feature he worked on was The Measure of a Man.
Among the critics less taken by At War is the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who finds that the abundance of yelling throughout is symptomatic of Brizé’s overly blunt approach. “This is a stridently, bafflingly cacophonous movie which despite some smart, shrewd touches, is pretty much content with its single note of shouting acrimony and finishes by immolating itself in martyred self-pity. I can’t think of a more defeatist and bizarrely unhelpful ending for anyone who comes to this film interested in the prospect of workers’ rights over neoliberalism.”
On that note, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn points out that “a Bertolt Brecht quote makes the story arc clear before a single frame: ‘He who fights, can lose. He who doesn’t fight, has already lost.’ While the sincerity of that sentiment may register, it’s an awfully obvious framing device and the movie follows suit.”
More from Aldo Álvareztostado (International Cinephile Society), Ben Croll (TheWrap), Fabien Lemercier (Cineuropa; Lemercier also interviews Brizé), Lisa Nesselson (Screen), and Barbara Scharres (RogerEbert.com).
And At War is one of the films Nicolas Rapold, Amy Taubin, Jonathan Romney, and Eric Hynes discuss in a whopper of an episode of the Film Comment Podcast (49’34”).
Update, 5/27: For Geoff Andrew, writing for Sight & Sound, “so utterly credible are all the performances, and so authentic the development of the negotiations between the opposing teams, that the film becomes unexpectedly engrossing.” More from Martyn Conterio (CineVue, 4/5).
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