Sculpting History

Images one after the other, combining clips from films and newsreels of the 1950s and 60s, including some we remember from the cinema, and then, in the next frame, an unknown shot of a woman wearing an apron sitting in her kitchen talking about her daily routine, or of children perched on the edge of a sandpit recounting their dreams from the night before. Here we are in a typical sequence from Retour à Reims (fragments), the fourth feature by Jean-Gabriel Périot, which employs the filmmaker’s signature method to survey its subject – in this case, the experiences of women and the working class in post-war France. Périot works by assembling a vast array of visual documents that he has collected, like a curator arranging a new hanging in a gallery to offer a fresh perspective on an artist’s oeuvre.

Since Périot’s early shorts of the 2000s, made when he worked in the multimedia department of the Pompidou, he has honed a distinctive approach that dispenses with many of the familiar attributes of the documentary form. Much of his work begins in the archives and ends in the editing studio. Périot spends years – seven in this case – researching and gathering material on a chosen subject without, he says, an end in mind, only questions that need answers, before intricately weaving them together. The results so far have been impressive, producing an original, eclectic oeuvre that includes his Une jeunesse allemande (2015), an important study of the far left in 1970s Germany and their relationship with the mass media. At the heart of his growing body of work is montage, which Périot compares in its procedures to that of sculpture, where one must

bring out a shape from a block of material while respecting certain details (the veins in the marble, internal movements in wood). You first roughen the material, try to understand it and feel the shape it hides, then you gradually get closer to this shape until you reach the details before polishing the whole thing. Montage is both a very technical job and a very sensitive and very sensory one.

In his latest film, however, Périot departs from his rulebook in one respect, by including a voiceover. To an extent this feature imposed itself as a necessity, given the film is an adaptation of the sociologist Didier Eribon’s memoir Retour à Reims (2009). In the book, Eribon examines his working-class upbringing in the titular city. Desperate to escape an environment that was made worse by his being gay, Eribon’s exit route was that of the classic transfuge de classe, going to university, getting an academic position and becoming a published author. Though born two decades after Eribon, the 48-year-old Périot says the book deeply resonated with his own experiences. But as its title suggests, Périot’s adaptation is far from faithful. Rather, he has selected fragments from the text, stripped it down to two essential themes while leaving out several others, notably that of homosexuality. It would have been too close to home, Périot has said about this omission. He did not want to make the film a personal reflection on his own life, both out of discretion and a fear of narrowing its focus.

The voiceover may be the biggest concession to the film’s source material, but in fact it works to distance us from Périot or Eribon, for it is read by a woman, and this voice most viewers in France will recognize as belonging to Adèle Haenel. As a result, her shadow is cast over the images we see, conjuring not only our knowledge of her fine work on screen with directors including the Dardenne brothers, Robert Campillo, Céline Sciamma, and the duo Gustave Kervern and Benoît Delépine, but also of the controversy she has courted in the last few years. Haenel played a key role in igniting the #MeToo movement in France through her public accusation against the director Christophe Ruggia. This was followed by her walk-out from the 2020 Césars ceremony when it was announced that Roman Polanski had been awarded best director, despite his outstanding charges for child sexual abuse. ‘C’est la honte’, she could be heard saying as she left the auditorium, in an act that inspired an article in Libération by Virginie Despentes that is now one of the movement’s founding texts: ‘On se lève et on se barre’. Most recently, Haenel has announced stepping back from acting to concentrate on her political activity, which has swung radically to the left.

Retour à Reims (fragments) is structured in three parts, though the first two make up most of the film’s one hour and 23 minutes running time, with the third a short epilogue in the form of an arresting fast-forward to contemporary France. Périot begins with Eribon’s grandmother, who was one of the tondues, the women who were paraded in the streets and had their heads shaved in an act of public humiliation for collaboration with the Vichy regime. In footage of these spectacles, we can make out the expressions of the accused, with their mixture of fear and contempt. It is a chilling starting point, not least because it is uncertain how many tondues really did collaborate, and how many were thrown in the same lot for shunning conventions of the time. This section then develops into a more general exploration of women’s lives across the period, knitting together testimony from housewives and young women with scenes from fiction films. The cumulative effect is touching and sad – this is ultimately a tale of limitation and unfulfilled dreams, of women whose lives could have been so much fuller had they been freed from their domestic roles. Among the few recognizable faces is Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, appearing in her kitchen, of course, chopping vegetables – seemingly more aware than most of the other women who appear in the film of the extent her life has not been fully lived. 

In the second part, Périot draws back further to explore the constricted experience of the working class as a whole. This analysis of domination was a key part of Eribon’s book, along with the shift he charts in his own family from leftists to National Front voters. Périot also includes the latter in his fragments. Alongside shots from factories and of workers describing their conditions, we witness the arrival of immigrants from newly independent Algeria and acts of racism. In one film clip, a young white woman enters a bar with a dark-skinned companion; not long after they order coffee an old wino at the end of the counter unleashes a bitter, racist tirade. Politicians also appear on several occasions and Périot pays particular attention to the 1981 election of François Mitterrand. We are left in no doubt that for all the jubilation this provoked on the left, and the nostalgia with which it is recalled by many in France today, Mitterrand was the president who did most to shift the Socialist Party to the right. In one particularly arresting sequence, we see Mitterrand on the day of his inauguration approaching us solemnly by foot along the Champs-Élysées, while behind him clashes take place between crowds and police. It is a nightmarish backdrop. Mitterrand is framed by violence, walking away as if oblivious to the disorder he has created.

The final section represents an unexpected finale. The quality of the images suddenly shifts from grainy and static to high definition, vividly colourful and dynamic. The footage here is not archival, but that of Périot and a few other filmmakers, shot during recent protests across France. After the sobriety of the first two sections, it makes for an invigorating jolt. We see the gilets jaunes protests and are reminded of the shocking police violence that took place in response, as well as other movements that have come out on the streets – environmentalists, feminists, the Nuit Debout protests. With this arrangement, set to rousing instrumental music, Périot makes what appears to be a distinct break from his source material, suggesting that the shift from left to right that Eribon chronicled may have been reversed. Given the stylistic austerity that he has previously adopted, it is surprising that Périot has taken this turn. And perhaps it is disappointing to see him use the powers of montage for a different end: to present an uplifting vision of France rather than depicting the one that currently exists. After all, while the epilogue forges a collective opposition through montage, the disparate protests that have erupted across the country remain just that, at least for now. But there is also something appealing about Périot’s note of optimism – it offers a snapshot of one possible future, as we embark on another five years with Emmanuel Macron as president.

Read on: Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘The French Insurgency’, NLR 116/117.