Even the word inequality is a euphemism that tones down the reality of the raw violence of exploitation.— Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims
In 2009, Parisian intellectual Didier Eribon released Returning to Reims, an autobiographical work that traces the writer’s return to his eponymous hometown after the death of his conservative and homophobic father. Eribon, being progressive and gay, one could see why reconciliation would be difficult, if not impossible.
The book was released to critical acclaim to both European and American readerships, with an English translation released in 2013 via MIT Press. Returning to Reims synthesizes the personal and the political, using Eribon’s family’s transformation from oppressed laborers to Communist party members, and ultimately, voters of France’s ultra-far-right National Front party as a backdrop to tell the story of the French working class and the post-Cold War world as a whole.
At this year’s 59th New York Film Festival, French director Jean-Gabriel Périot, himself gay and from a working-class background, premiered an adaptation of Eribon’s book. The film is part of the Currents program, which aims to paint a “more complete picture of contemporary cinema with an emphasis on new and innovative forms and voices.”
Périot’s film eschews the notion of a straightforward narrative adaptation in favor of combining a voiceover from actor Adèle Haenel with archival footage, allowing for an investigation of the representation of the French working class in both film and television. Haenel works as a brilliant choice for narrator here, as she, besides being known for acting roles in films such as Céline Sciamma‘s 2019 film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is also a political figure who exposed how she was sexually harassed as a 12-year-old actor by director Christophe Ruggia.
With Haenel’s voice undergirding the collision of images shown on the screen, emphasis is put on how gender and sexual politics have evolved in French culture. This ranges from the abuse women suffered at the hands of their fellow citizens for being romantically involved with Germans during WWII, to displaying them in arduous and alienating factory jobs later in the 20th-century.
Returning to Reims strikes its loudest note in its prescience. In tracking the changing loyalties of working-class French voters, from the left to the ultra-far-right, we are left with a story that is all too familiar in our time. From the popularity and the disastrous consequences of the conservative and imperialist politics of American president George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair nearly two decades ago to the resurgent forces of nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism across the globe in the last several years, Périot’s film dares its audiences to imagine a world in which class solidarity can once again be rooted in material concerns as opposed to myths about the racialized “other”.
The film reminds me of François Cusset’s How the World Swung to the Right (2018) which details what “ideological, cultural, and socioeconomic seeds” birthed the “rotten fruit” that is contemporary far-right politics. Cusset argues that a leftist from the 1960s, whether of a Marxist, Leninist, or Maoist persuasion, would find it impossible to identify what we today deem as “leftist” political policies or parties.
The epilogue of Returning to Rimes warns that it is “not easy to rid oneself of lasting political ties, and new ties cannot be forged overnight…,” yet what is needed is a “new view of the world and life itself.” In an era of constant crisis, from unending political crises, the climate catastrophe, and the seemingly unending Covid-19 pandemic, ours is an era of constant upheaval. Within that upheaval, we must heed Cusset’s call to “reinvent everything”.