Returning To Reims (Fragments)


Reviewed by: Matthew Anderson

Returning To Reims (Fragments)
"Never directly asking the question, but leaving liberté, égalité and fraternité to hang in the air between scenes and lines, Périot’s latest gives a voice to the voiceless, the disenfranchised, the forgotten." | Photo: Courtesy of Director's Fortnight

Adapted for the screen by writer/director Jean-Gabriel Périot from the mémoir of Paris-based author and philosopher Dider Eribon, Returning To Reims (Fragments) charts the rise and fall – in both literal and figurative terms, and the changing fortunes and objectives of the French working class, from the post-Second World War period to contemporary times.

A rich, well-edited, patchwork of library footage, intimate historical interviews and snippets of narrative film, employed at various stages as fictionalised representations of the very personal source material, the throughline of this documentary and its largely linear chronology, comes from Adèle Haenel’s narration of Eribon’s words. Contemplative recollections and musings, told with a perhaps surprisingly dispassionate neutrality, focus on the writer’s grandmother, parents and the changing face of the worker’s movement over the course of nearly 80 years.

Copy picture

With a definite affinity for the source text, thanks to his own background and upbringing, Périot chooses not to deal with, or refer to in any way, the author’s homosexuality and the homophobic abuse he suffered at the hands of bigoted, uncomprehending family and peers. Instead, the director trains his eye at an individual level on divisions within class and gender groups – rife with stereotypes, post-Liberation vindictiveness, chauvinism and a rigid social order. Never directly asking the question, but leaving liberté, égalité and fraternité to hang in the air between scenes and lines, Périot’s latest gives a voice to the voiceless, the disenfranchised, the forgotten.

Showing the true face of the suppressed masses, too often diminished to an anonymous bloc – and certainly underrepresented on film, he demonstrates that the notions on which La République was founded are little more than intangible, unattainable platitudes. There is a real fluidity to the living, breathing milieux we visit in the film’s first ‘movement’. Homes, factories, shops, cafés and bistros; the desperate conditions of accommodation and work, the infrequent, fleeting moments of respite from lives lived – or rather endured – the hard way. Touching, engaging first-hand accounts, heard and seen, reflect and emphasise the fact that Eribon’s forebears were among thousands, millions of others, eking out an existence against the odds.

Further broken down into momentary chapters, the (Fragments) of the film’s title covers a great deal of ground but remains informative rather than emotive, which limits the lasting impact Returning To Reims leaves. This distancing is further emphasised by the voiceover’s use of the past historic – a formal French literary tense, which further keeps the material and subjects portrayed here at an arm’s length. Drawing back to a more macro vision of the political landscape as the film moves into its second movement, the working class shifts from far-left to far-right political affiliation as Jean-Marie le Pen’s Front National enter the fray.

This is too simplistic an explanation on my part here, and the film does navigate the reasons for it well, but exploited, spat out and ignored by their traditional Communist roots, a lurch to the opposite end of the spectrum is understandable, if not excusable. Bringing the debate up to date with modern-day protests, the film’s epilogue stands a warning sign of sorts, and an indication that the fight goes on, but Returning to Reims never quite sounds the clarion call that it appears to strive for.

Reviewed on: 01 Aug 2021
Share this with others on...
An intimate and political story of the French working class from the beginning of the 1950s to today.

Director: Jean-Gabriel Périot

Starring: Narrated by Adèle Haenel

Year: 2021

Runtime: 83 minutes

Country: France

Search database: