In 1867, Karl Marx theorized the struggle of the proletarian masses in economical words. But the emotional resonance rang from Emile Zola's "Germinal", 18 years after "The Capital" and the impact was so strong that at the death of Zola in 1902, a group of coal-miners marched during his funeral shouting "Germinal". Scholars look as it as a masterpiece of naturalism, a genre where Zola was the figurehead. His method consisted in collecting information from knowledge, then researches, on-the-spot investigations (as far as going down into the mine for "Germinal"). While he could collect notebooks with hundred pages worth of information, Zola insisted that the lion share of his story was the result of his own imagination and intuition, mirroring even his old friend Flaubert's conviction that a writer should also learn to make notebooks to better despise them. Personally, I do trust Zola's approach as I discover in the book characterization as rich and labyrinthine as a mine's gallery, from Lantier, the idealistic 'troublemaker', Maheu the quiet family man, Maheude, his hot-tempered wife or the brutish, alcoholic Chaval. Zola's book might say more about the torments of the working class (whose condition history slightly rose above slavery) than any documentary, and Zola's stance during the Dreyfus Affair cleared any doubt about the man's humanitarian motives. And "Germinal" is humanitarian as it reveals deep and disturbing truths without romanticizing the coal-miners: idealistic, rude, sensitive, ugly, or disillusioned. Lantier, portrayed by Renaud, embodies the outsider's perspective, the most likely to be the spark that ignites the wrath, as people from the mine are too alienated by their routine they can't see the machines they became. Yet there are no villains either, as the bourgeois are portrayed with similar impartial exactitude, just failing to inspire pity because they can eat. Movie-wise, "Germinal" is no Eisenstein material. Indeed, after the storm is gone, everything gets back to normal, Zola's final paragraph seems to predict that the next time will be the right one, but history didn't echo Zola's optimism although the prediction didn't necessarily imply for the last century. The problem with Claude Berri's film is that it is one century too late, and we have enough perspective to accept the ending as a defeat, the voice-over narration doesn't cancel the downer feeling. But who said you couldn't make great film out of a failure? Berri proved to be a lucid painter of human corruption, judging by his two masterpieces "Jean de Florette" and "Manon des Sources". And in "Germinal", he reminds us that the worst human traits transcend classes. One of the key characters is Chaval, a brute infatuated with Maheu's daughter Catherine. Jean-Roger Milo plays with gusto the street-smart man who's no less idealistic than the next schmuck but whose soul is already rotten by life's meaninglessness. Judith Henry, as Catherine, is sweet and submissive as going down the mine lowered her self-esteem in the process and made her believe she deserved Chaval more than the decent Lantier. The matriarch, (played by Miou-Miou) isn't the voice of consolation either, she resents Catherine because she now belongs to Chaval and so does her wage. That's one of the subtle lessons of "Germinal", coal-miners are as driven by money as capitalists, maybe more because it's a matter of life and death. The company gives them a house (the 'corons' in the North of France are an architectural heritage of the industrial era), and enough money not to die from hunger. They make children, as many arms to work but as many mouths to feed, stability depends on this fragile balance. But the film, following Zola's method and echoing the didacticism of John Ford's "Grapes of Wrath", explains why the strikes start. Minders are paid for the coal, but not the timbers they use to shore up the shafts, so they put less spirit in the timbering, causing more accidents. When the company pays the shoring, the wages for coal are reduced, leading to an even less profitable situation. On an intellectual level, "Germinal" works, so well in fact that the film might be less impressive when it gets spectacular. Indeed, Berri is never as efficient as during intimate or subtle interactions, when the rich daughter Cecile doesn't give the whole sweet bun to Maheude's children, only the half of it, it mirrors the way rich people hardly renounce their share. Miou-Miou is never as effective as in the quieter moments, her weird grunts at some tragic moments made me turn down the volume so my neighbors wouldn't get the wrong idea of the type of movies I watched. Renaud is a natural, he was the reason Berri wanted to make the film like Coluche for "Tchao Pantin" and Yves Montand for the Provence two-parter, as the singing Vox Populi, Renaud was meant to play Lantier. And Gérard Depardieu plays the brave old chap in a role that (I guess) wasn't too demanding. Some scenes are rather unnecessary as they had nothing to the big picture and all the "big" scenes with crowds of workers marching over the hills say less than the infamous cadaver's mutilation that contributed to the film's most shocking image. I won't spoil the scene but the look on the man's faces says a lot about the way things get easily out of control and it says something more about human nature. Berri adapted two movies from Marcel Pagnol, s about the basic need for water but saying so much more about the unlimited vileness of greed. "Germinal" works in a reverse way, on the surface, it might feel like a hymn for dignity, but maybe it's a film that also shows how far people go, when driven by some force as desperate and uncontrollable as hunger, to show, or to warn us.
Drama / Romance
Drama / Romance
In mid-nineteenth-century northern France, a coal mining town's workers are exploited by the mine's owner. One day, they decide to go on strike, and the authorities repress them.
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April 6, 2019