Despite the condescending reviews that it received at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, Stephane Brize’s At War is one of the great strike films, as uncompromising as Strike, Salt of the Earth, Harlan County USA and Sherpa. Starting with an aphorism from Bertolt Brecht (“whoever fights can win, whoever does not fight has already lost”), the film immerses us in a strike by factory workers in the South of France. Led by Laurent (Vincent Lydon) and Melanie (Melanie Rover), 1100 employees of Perrin Industrie, an auto parts manufacturer, put down their tools to retain their jobs after it is announced that their factory will be closing. We quickly learn that the workers have contributed to the company by accepting limited wages on the condition that the plant be keep open for at least five years, and that Perrin has received state subsidies in order to help it to do so. Despite that, however, management has decided not to honour their side of the agreement, offering a series of outplacement packages and supra-legal bonuses that clearly don’t come close to the benefits of five more years of wages. While the French government is sympathetic, and the President even recommends that the plant be kept open, there’s nothing they can do, citing the free market and the importance of free enterprise within the French economy as a whole. Meanwhile, Perrin continues to insist that closing the plant is an economic necessity, despite the fact that their executive staff still continue to receive and enjoy absurd bonuses.
While many critics took issue with the film’s lack of “characterisation,” one of the great strengths of At War is that it refuses to concede a world for these workers outside the strike. That’s not to say that they don’t exhibit individual characters, or that they are a faceless mob, but that character can only emerge and in and through the conditions of the strike itself. Put another way, character is a luxury that they can’t afford for the time being, and a mechanism that management use against them by depending, time and again, on this collective impulse falling apart due to the tension between individual characters within it. At times, management actually plays to these more individualist outliers within the group, and tacitly encourages them to think of themselves as characters in this way, in order to try and bring the strike to a timely close. As a result, At War often plays as docudrama rather than fiction – and clarifies that the best strike films, from Strike to Sherpa, always play as documentary or docudrama, never permitting themselves or audiences the luxury of fiction.
What makes At War different from earlier strike films is the way it targets in on the rhetoric of inclusion as the main weapon mobilised against workers. From the very outset, management try to frame the strike as a common struggle – “it’s not workers against bosses any more” – in which every member of the company, from the lowliest worker to the CEO, is fighting a common battle. When pressed about what they actually mean by this, the executive body are generally only able to provide vague platitudes about democracy and free enterprise (“Let’s say I encourage an exchange of views”) but that doesn’t prevent them from telling anyone who will listen – especially the media – that the shareholders belong to every single person who works for the company, and that every single person who works for the company is therefore equal. Rather than resist the language of camaraderie, collectivity and solidarity, the Perrin management internalise it, culminating in a grotesque scene in which they bring in the riot squad to escort a small coterie of willing workers through the picket line, while telling the strikers it is they who are blocking access to work.
For the strikers, it is paramount to resist this rhetoric of inclusion above all else, along with the narrative of the market that accompanies it. One of the first heated discussions turns on management’s use of the pronoun’s “your” or “our” (“your struggle” or “our struggle”), while the most heated discussions tend to occur whenever management suggests that workers and bosses alike are united against the market, which is the real, if unavoidable, enemy (“The answer has a name and a face – the market. I fight, you fight, every day.”) Naturally, this rhetoric of inclusion leads to an even more damaging rhetoric of emotional understanding, as management reduce industrial conditions to interpersonal differences, and resort to tone policing whenever the strikers insist too firmly on their rights: “I understand your anger and emotion.” In a horrible yet totally familiar end point of late capitalism, one of the executive figures considers it a “personal insult” to be told that he doesn’t respect workers, while most of management exhibit emotional “shock” at one point or another on the basis of the most direct and rudimentary demands from their employees.
No surprise, then, that the first stage in the strike involves being determined to talk over – or through – these platitudes and deflections. In fact, the strike is often simply about demanding the dignity of a direct answer, and traversing all the spatial and temporal thresholds required to simply look their CEO in the eye. This proves to be remarkably difficult, to the point where even establishing a meeting with the CEO is a kind of victory, and arguably the most tangible victory that the strikers ever achieve. It is in this process of insisting on a direct and immediate response from the CEO that the pastoral overtones of management give way to something closer to a control society, as the strikers quickly find themselves physically constrained from carrying out their plans. In one particularly striking sequence, they are delayed for hours at the reception of the company headquarters, then have to wait for several more hours outside the CEO’s office, then are surrounded by security, then are “managed” by two representatives from the CEO’s office, and then finally dealt with by the riot squad before they are able to see or converse with the CEO in person.
Between these twin strategies of emotional “care” and physical constriction, the company not only seeks to silence its workers, but to impose a particular view of reality upon them. The most powerful thing about this management, rhetorically, is its assurance of reason, rationality and truth, and its equal assurance that what the strikers are demanding is unreasonable, irrational and dissociated from basic facts. As a result, the main obstacle standing in the workers’ way is capitalist realism, the arrogation of realism by those in control of the plant, whose endless refrain is that the market is a faceless – but inescapable – beast that workers and employees have to combat alike. Because that position doesn’t simply involve insisting upon a situation within reality, but upon a mode reality itself, management are often as compelling as they are evasive, adding a new level of difficulty to the challenges posed to strikers in the twenty-first century. The most common refrain from management is “in reality,” while the most common criticism of the strikers is that they are aiming for “utopia,” a criticism that the strikers start to internalise among themselves, so powerful is its hold, leading to a key faction finally accepting the outplacement propositions.
While the film never presumes to judge those who accept these outplacements, it is also deeply sceptical, as are many of the strikers, of this arrogation of realism on the part of the company. With the company stating that they consider the strike “to be in the realm of utopia, rather than realism,” Brize and the strikers simply reinvent utopia as a more pragmatic concept, and a concept that is defined negatively. Instead of reaching for some fully conceptualised future state, utopia here simply consists in refusing the conditions of possibility that determine the present. If, as the CEO suggests, “refusing to see market realities is like demanding a new world,” than the strikers have no option but to demand that world, no matter how much management might reproach them for doing so. Interestingly, one of the key ways in which the executive body try to frame this reproach is by setting a claim upon culture as well, frequently invoking broader insights into society that are as platitudinous as they are pompous. Yet where this kind of cultural capital and debased noblesse politique might have impressed an earlier kind of worker, it is no longer tenable in Brize’s version, where it tends to fall flat on its audiences as soon as it is spoken.
Within that context, Brize is forced to do considerably more than merely “represent” the strike. Instead, he immerses us in the strike for extended periods of time, at key moments in the evolution of the workers’ demands, as a way of reinstating the reality-principle of the film – or insisting upon a different reality from the one that Perrin Industrie suffuses into every mise-en-scene. Exuding the vortical, propulsive energy of the Dardenne brothers, these sequences force us to experience the strike from the inside out, and tend to focus on the interface between the strike and the forces trying to suppress it (typically the shields of the riot squad), along with the way in which that interface has the potential to congeal and cohere the strikers into a common and collective entity. Great swathes of the film take place at this cusp between the homogenizing effects of the riot squad and the homogenizing of the crowd itself, as if to remind the audience that exploitation can be as galvanising as it is constricting. While Brize tends to cut away from these extended strike scenes just as their energy peaks, this doesn’t dissipate their volatility, but instead suggests that this moment of maximal collectivity is somehow unthinkable within the film, and that even the film – and the medium of film – is still enthralled to the mode of capitalist realist it is trying to jettison.
That’s not so say that At War is merely defeatist, or self-reflexive, but that it understands that the biggest challenge to a twentieth-century strike is maintaining a hold on reality, and refusing to allow the enemy to arrogate reality as their own. One of the key ways in which Brize himself achieves this is by refusing to reduce the film to individual interpersonal relationships in the way that management advocates as part of its divide and conquer strategy. While Laurent and Melanie have a fantastic rapport, we find out that they actually barely know each other, and that all their charismatic communion is mediated through and within the strike. Similarly, while the film ends with a “human” moment – Laurent visiting his daughter and granddaughter – this is quickly followed by Laurent setting himself on fire in front of the factory, as if the only way to strike as an individual were to demonstrate that individualism is an inherently self-immolating way to contend with the company. Filmed on a smart phone, this immolation scene breaks with the style of the rest of the film, initially suggesting a more individual viewpoint and perception, but quickly expanding into an even broader collective address, as Brize refrains from disclosing who actually shot or circulated the footage, and instead concludes with the impact that it has upon the strikers as a whole.
This impact is a bit contradictory, since while it forces Perrin to acknowledge the workers’ claims, it also dissipates the sense of collectivity amongst the workers themselves. Rather than capitulate to the workers’ demands because they recognise their legitimacy, or because they are overpowered, Perrin simply keeps the factory open because Laurent’s self-immolation changes the optics calculus, and forces their head of HR to recalibrate the best option. There’s something depressing and deflating about that, since it means that the film implodes more than it properly concludes, as if to illustrate Mark Fisher’s iconic statement that “all that is solid vanishes into PR” – even the most robust of revolutionary gestures, at least in the industrial-corporate workplace the film describes. Rather than become an emblem of radical protest, as in the case of Thích Quảng Đức, Laurent’s death is just another PR stunt to be contained, just as PR seems like the only place where the war against Perrin can be waged, even if it can never be properly won on that plane either. Interestingly, most critics loved the final scene between Laurent and his granddaughter, but hated the self-immolation scene, suggesting that Brize is as keen to expose the continuities between management in the film and the critical management of film as he is to elaborate this particular situation. No surprise, then, that a surprisingly large number of critics have lambasted the film for not presenting anything outside the strike, or not exploring the moral complexity of the company, or not psychologizing management, since, to his credit, Brize is disinterested in all these middlebrow options, producing one of the most probing, rigorous and empathetic industrial films since the Dardennes released Two Days, One Night in 2015.