Keeping It Together
By A. G. Sims

NYFF 2021:
Returning to Reims
Dir. Jean-Gabriel Périot, France, no distributor

Didier Eribon is obsessed with fate. In his acclaimed memoir, Returning to Reims, the French author writes about the postindustrial town where he grew up and the destiny he narrowly escaped. He fled to Paris, in 1964, went to college, and reinvented himself as an intellectual. He also came out of the closet. In a Guardian profile, he explained that the shame of his class background, which he initially hid from his more cosmopolitan peers, became a more difficult psychological prison to break out of than his hidden sexuality. “People who say they are proud to be working-class are really saying they are proud to no longer be working-class,” he said. He avoided his hometown for 30 years and kept his family at a distance until his father died, and he finally began to reconnect with his mom. As they pored over old photographs in the wake of family tragedy, his mother reflected on the difficulties of her life, and this triggered Eribon’s own reflections. As Eribon is a famed writer and philosopher, these reflections were academic in nature, about the forces outside of their control that ultimately determined the fortunes and identities of his parents and grandparents. “My father’s being, everything I held against him, everything I hated him for, was forged by the violence of the social world,” he wrote in his book. “My father’s life, his personality, his subjectivity, were determined by a place and a time whose harshness and constraints were boundless. The key to his being? Where and when he was born.”

This is the source material for the documentary Returning to Reims, from filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot, which premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes and screened last week at the New York Film Festival. Périot’s movie opens in the present day, with a shot of an agricultural truck driving past a city-limits sign into the town of Reims. Over misty shots of postindustrial landscapes and crusty urban exteriors, actress Adele Haenel narrates from a passage about Eribon’s eventual return to Reims and his mother’s eagerness to share her stories of hardship. This moody prologue sets up a movie which unfolds as a mosaic of archival footage, beginning with a meticulous profile of Eribon’s grandmother, who gave birth to his mom at 16. When her father caught wind of her pregnancy, he kicked her out. She eventually had three more children with another man after she was abandoned by her lover. And when France fell to Germany in 1940, his grandmother volunteered to work in Germany and left her four children, which included Eribon’s mom, with a foster family. After a few months, she stopped sending money, and the kids were eventually transferred to an orphanage.

Haenel reads these lines from Eribon’s book over clips and fragments of motion pictures and music videos from the ’30s and ’40s. After the narration of this period of his grandmother’s life, which would have been considered scandalous at the time, there’s a brief musical interlude—a clip from the music video of “Toute seule” by French singer and actress Fréhel. The video is an on-the-nose dramatization of the themes Haenel just narrated—a woman with a black tooth gets tipsy at an outdoor bistro before sulking around town and striking a few suggestive poses. But Fréhel’s own backstory deepens the reference. Fréhel endured a difficult childhood and gritty Parisian street life before being discovered as a teen and becoming a star. She headlined all over France and had small cameos in several movies in the ’30s, but she battled severe alcoholism and drug addiction throughout, which eventually led to the decline of her career. In Returning to Reims, as the woman stumbles through the streets in the clip, Fréhel mournfully croons, “When I drink, I go home merry, seeking a little pleasure all on my own. And one fine day, I’ll depart without friends, without flowers, without regrets. If there’s a God for outcasts up there, perhaps I’ll no longer be all on my own.”

This is one example of how Périot is quite clever in the reference points he uses from French culture to visualize Eribon’s text. (Other critics have identified scenes from French cinema classics such as Germaine Dulac’s Celles qui s’en font and Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant.) But the distance from reality keeps us at a remove and at times makes these personal stories feel abstract. Black-and-white archival interviews with working-class French women break up the narration and add some pathos, but these interludes, along with moments like Fréhel’s lament, are limited in their ability to substitute for more concrete information about the interiority of the women in Eribon’s lineage, his mother and grandmother both complex, imperfect women of their times, who had sex out of marriage, got illegal abortions, and led lives that were sometimes messy. After the Liberation of France, French women who were suspected (many falsely) to have had romantic relationships with German soldiers were publicly humiliated and shamed in front of large crowds for their “collaboration.” Having voluntarily gone to Germany during the occupation, Eribon’s grandmother was accused of such an affair, and her head was shaved—a widespread punishment adopted by many parts of Europe after the Germans left their countries. “Who was this enemy soldier? Did she love him? Or was she seeking a better life than what she had known?” Eribon wondered. These public shamings were widely recorded at the time, and this archival footage of grimacing women being shorn and laughed at by amused men accompany Haenel’s narration.

Périot imposes a clear, two-part structure on the movie. The first part is this unsentimental look at Eribon’s family history, connecting his mother, father, and grandmother to the social milieu they came from. These human explorations build to a thesis that arrives in the second movement, which contains a diagnosis for an international phenomenon that has perplexed many left-leaning thinkers around the world—the rise of right-wing populism across Europe and elsewhere, emblematized by figures like Donald Trump and Rassemblement National (formerly called National Front) leader Marine Le Pen. The class struggle and class solidarity that were indelible features of the French society Eribon’s parents and grandparents grew up in has all but disappeared over the past 50 years, he argues. Since the election of former president François Mitterrand in 1981, the left-wing has slowly turned its back on the working faction of its base and increasingly invested in bourgeois priorities, leaving those exploited in search of a voice for their cause. And while everyone slept, these populist leaders were making inroads by speaking directly to their grievances.

That particular argument has caught fire, in recent years, in every place that the right-wing populist movement has touched. Since the publication of Eribon’s book, in 2009, Returning to Reims has reached cult status, selling tens of thousands of copies in France, and becoming a bestseller in Germany as well. (In 2018, German director Thomas Ostermeier adapted it into a play, which opened in Brooklyn.) That Eribon’s memoir has become gospel in some European intellectual circles says more, I think, about the state of liberal discourse right now than it does about the argument itself. But in service of amplifying these heady ideas, Périot unfortunately strips away one of the most compelling aspects of Eribon’s book: the self-reflective exploration of his class shame that drove him to write it in the first place. “There was a question that had come to trouble me a bit earlier, once I had taken the first steps on this return journey to Reims…” he wrote. “Why, when I have had such an intense experience of forms of shame related to class ... why had it never occurred to me to take up this problem in a book?”

The film is at its most poignant when it brings Eribon and his own interior back into focus. At one point, Haenel narrates from a passage about a foundational incident that made a lifelong impression on him as a child. Eribon saw his mother crying after being belittled at her job as a maid—he overheard her boss say they couldn’t trust her. Haenel reads, “I still feel disgust for this world of humiliation and continue to hate relations based on power and hierarchy.” It’s a revealing confession, and while the movie neglects much of the personal, the book itself is filled with compelling and insightful reflections like these. He grapples with plenty of knotty emotions like shame and humiliation. Repulsion, also. I’m also interested in the idea that this project seems, in some ways, a form of personal amends. Eribon aims to dignify working people, who he thinks have been ridiculed socially and taken for granted by those on the left, who once claimed to be their advocates. It’s clear that he blames himself as well. But at the same time, that the text is a highly intellectual response to what is at heart an emotional problem, seems to have generated some blind spots.

Eribon’s scorn for the liberal elite for their abandonment of working-class people is not so dissimilar from the think pieces that proliferated after the election of Trump in 2016. And in the U.S., the diagnosis of the problem was essentially the same: Democrats hadn’t mysteriously lost working-class voters overnight—they’d been pushing them away for years with their focus on alienating subject matter like “identity politics” and immigration. But what’s been almost entirely forgotten in this argument is that the working class is not entirely made up of white people. So, it’s not very fruitful to think of it as a monolithic voting bloc. Black people, immigrants, and ethnic minorities also make up the working-class populations of the world, each with their own priorities that are sometimes at odds with one another. What Eribon and, by virtue of his movie, Périot, are actually examining is the history of France’s white working class. And one of the most successful ways the far-right, via Le Pen, courted this group was by appealing directly to their angst and resentment towards minorities. Meaning the decline of the left hasn’t merely coincided with a rise in hate—it’s been, in part, fueled by it. An honest reckoning with France’s political story would require deep consideration of that fact.

Despite those gaps, Périot’s treatment of Returning to Reims is thought-provoking and worthwhile, especially as France gears up for the May 2022 presidential election, which could mean a new resident at the Élysée Palace. French President Emmanuel Macron, who’s up for reelection, was supposed to be transformative—a figure akin to Mitterand in his ability to unite Communists and Socialists and revitalize the left. But people have been more than suspicious of his claims to progressivism, and with little signs of life from France’s once celebrated Socialist Party, this leaves many workers still searching for a political home. By bringing Eribon’s story to the screen, Périot reveals the stakes of the simmering tensions of French politics at a critical juncture. But while comprehensive sociopolitical analysis may be necessary to spark the revolution, nothing is as illuminating and life-affirming as a strong personal narrative.