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In 1957, Elise Le Tellier, a young woman from Bordeaux, decides to join her brother Lucien, a revolutionary who has decided to become a worker instead of a notable. Lucien has secured a position for her and Elise in turn works on the assembly line of a car factory. There she meets and falls in love with Arezki, a young Algerian immigrant. The conflict between France and Algeria makes their life together very difficult, despite the deep love that binds them. Written by
It is often said that French cinema does not tackle the Algerian war very frequently. It is mostly a myth. But whereas there are about 20 French films that deal directly with this topic (there are much more films that only hint at the conflict, such as for instance "The Butcher" by Claude Chabrol, where the main character is a war vet traumatized by his experience as a soldier in Indochina and Algeria), most of them are either political or psychological modest flicks ("Intimate Enemies" is the only action film I can think of). The usual comparison with the Vietnam war is in my opinion really pointless: on the one hand you have a Cold War conflict and on the other hand you have a decolonization war. Of course the American film industry has produced loads of movies on the Vietnam war when the French seem much more reluctant to deal with their history, but when both wars are generally regarded as "dirty" and controversial, the French have to deal with memories of torture, political murders, terrorism (and remember that terrorist attempts and political murders also took place on the French soil), counter-terrorism and the loss of a territory where hundreds of thousands of French settlers lived. Each nation has to fight its own taboos and/or guilt: after all, we are still waiting for the first American film on the Hiroshima nuclear bombing and its consequences.
I understand the Algerian war must be a subject difficult to grasp when you are not French nor familiar with French history. It is always better to read a little bit about the context before watching a film related to the Algerian war. However, if you have a special interest in this period and would like to improve your knowledge on the matter, here are three films I strongly recommend for I believe them to be fair and honest: "Outremer", directed by Brigitte Roüan in 1990 (the French settlers' point of view), "La trahison" ("The Betrayal"), directed by Philippe Faucon in 2005 (a chronicle of a French army unit's maneuvers in the Algerian desert) and this one (on the situation in France during the "events"). These films are by no means Hollywood-style blockbusters nor lavish productions, but they all provide penetrating insights into the conflict and its impact on French society. I have nicknamed this film "Elise, or the Home Front" as the story is set in France while the war with Algeria was going on.
In 1957, Elise Le Tellier, a young woman from Bordeaux, decides to join her brother Lucien, an intellectual with revolutionary ideas who has decided to become a worker in a car factory on the outskirts of Paris (thus abandoning his wife and child in Bordeaux). Lucien has secured a position for her and Elise in turn works on the assembly line in the factory. There she meets and falls in love with Arezki, a young Algerian immigrant. The conflict between France and Algeria makes their life together very difficult, despite the deep love that binds them.
Michel Drach has directed a brave film which hides nothing of the reality of racism in the France of the late 50's. His film has a documentary-like precision when it comes to describe the appalling working conditions in the car factories where thousands of Algerian Muslims worked after WWII. I found this part of the film very interesting. You may find that Michel Drach really took his time to describe the assembly line and the atmosphere in the car factory, but it was the immigrants' confined world as the French authorities and employers did not put in place any large-scale or national program to organize the life of North African migrants outside the workplace. The deafening noise, the racist and macho remarks uttered by the foremen form the backdrop against which the love story between Arezki (Mohamed Chouikh) and sweet Elise (Marie-Jose Nat, then Drach's wife) develops. But don't expect a sugar-coated love story as war and racial prejudice make the romance virtually impossible. Once again the film is very brave in showing the miserable living conditions of the immigrants and the frequent and humiliating roundups and the police searches aimed at them. It shows also some of the tensions within the Algerian community, a hint to the internal fighting between rival Algerian nationalist movements.
The script was written by Drach and Claude Lanzmann (the man who directed "Shoah" years later) and is based on a novel by Claire Etcherelli, winner of the Femina Prize in 1967. Claire Etcherelli was inspired by her own experience as a provincial working girl who got hired in a Parisian factory and as a supporter of the Algerian independence. Sure, "Elise, ou la vraie vie" is a left-wing film, featuring some politically engaged actors such as Bernadette Lafont and Catherine Allégret (Simone Signoret's daughter) in small parts, yet it has nothing of a propaganda work, one-sided, heavy and tedious. The characters and the plot are realistic, the overall tone is sincere. No character is either good or bad, and even activists have their weaknesses (see how Lucien, Elise's brother, becomes more and more indifferent to great causes). Marie-José Nat's acting is touching as the young woman who gradually becomes aware of the world she lives in. Is that real life? Is real life the short time she spends with Arezki? The ending does not say so. As the title of the film suggests, it seems that young Elise has no choice between a stifling life or doomed love and transient freedom.
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