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About Zola's novel, Havelock Ellis wrote: "It was neither amusing enough nor outrageous enough to attract the multitude". So it is with the film which emphasizes realism over romanticism and exists more as a study of a timeless social/political issue than pure commercial entertainment. A must see for cinema buffs but not likely have broad commercial appeal.
"Germinal" is such a movie that deals with life of the ordinary man and woman. It tells the story of the coal miners in the region of Lille, in the North of France at the end of the 19th century. They are all poor, they work too hard in awful conditions and they don't get paid what they deserve by the bosses who only want to get richer and richer by doing whatever they can so they won't have to pay a cent to their workforce. Of course the miners aren't happy with that situation and when they get into contact with two men who both want to change the situation, one a communist union man and the other one an anarchist, the miners soon go on a strike, with some very unpleasant consequences as a result...
What first went through my mind while seeing this one, was that this movie has a lot of similarities with "Daens" (1993), the Belgian movie that tells the story of the poor textile workers in Flanders at the end of the 19th century. It's the same time period and both regions are only about 60 miles or 90 kilometers apart. If you like to see what life in the European industrial regions at the end of the 19th century was like, than both movies are certainly something you shouldn't miss.
What I liked about the movie as well was that it had a good pace and that it stayed interesting from the beginning until the end. It could have been very easy for the director to make a movie about this subject that lasted 5 or 6 hours, but than it might have lost much of its power. Now, you get a pretty good idea of what life in that region during the industrial revolution was like, without having to struggle through too many details that don't really contribute to the story. Next to the good story, I must say that I also liked the acting. Even though Gérard Depardieu hasn't always made the best choices of movies to play in, I always like him in the role of the ordinary man, the underdog that has to fight the system. I liked him in the mini-series "Les Misérables" as well and he has the same kind of role in this movie. The other actors did a fine job as well, even though I have to admit that I don't really know anyone of them, except for Bernard Fresson perhaps. All in all this is a very good adaptation of the novel by Émile Zola. It does exactly what I expected from it and that's why I give it at least a 7.5/10.
I'll be watching this one again. (By the way, I found the distant shot of the striking workers marching across the plain especially moving. And I had the feeling throughout the film that this was how things really looked at that terrible period of French, and European, history.)
We should be thankful that there is a country that produces real films - and of this scope.
I cringe to think how badly this would have been mutilated by Americans - we'd have a happy ending, they'd "go easy" on the commie stuff, there would be no premarital relations, the shopkeeper would be spared, some bland and muscly "action hero" type would catch the saboteur character and they'd fight with wrenches - sparks flying in the mineshaft. They would take out all social commentary, rename it etc etc... And then - the sequel "Germinal 2 - the Heroes of the Pit!" in a modern day setting with oil wells and helicopters.
Anyway, in all sincerity, I hope the accountants of Hollywood never try to butcher this story.
There are two ways you can do it, keep it simple or explore everything and bore the audience to death. You can see here that the director has decided to keep the story as simple and straightforward as possible.
This means there are a few gaping holes in the film, as it ignores some of the intricacies of the story and many of the sub-plots which punctuate the story and add to the feel of the book.
In one sense he succeeds, as the tempo of the film is high and it rattles along at a fair pace, not reading like a 2 and a half hour story.
But the major drawback of this tactic is that Germinal ends up looking like a simplistic noble workers versus the greedy bosses story, when the novel is anything but that.
Scorn is poured on both sides with equal contempt by Zola, and plenty of sympathy is given to some of the "wealthy" protaganists in the book.
Having said this, I do understand that in order to keep the film from turning into a 4 hour behemoth, you need to try and keep it as simple as possible.
On the whole, however, it is pretty well acted and the art direction is utterly breathtaking. The villages, the pits, the landscapes, the mines are fabulously shot. You really can feel the poverty oozing from every inch of the screen.
Gerard Depardieu (Maheu) and Renaud (Ettiene) put in some pretty convincing turns but feel that Jean-Roger Milo rather over-egged Chaval, turning him into some pseudo incredible hulk type character who is incapable of speaking normally. Judith Henry also seems a little to young and fresh faced to play Catherine.
I think I let my interpretation of the book cloud my judgement, and as a result I was disappointed because I expected more from the film than I should have.
Rating: 3 out of 5
That said, there are most certainly good things in this movie. Miou Miou delivers, in my opinion, the movie's best performance. No, she is not at all the earth mother that Zola's la Meheude is. But she acts with her face, saying far more with a facial gesture than many words would have said. In a movie that skims over a lot of material, that makes for very effective acting. Depardieu is sometimes very good - physically he is perfect for the part of le Maheu - sometimes he seems to deliver the lines without thinking about them. The actor who plays Souvarine is very striking.
The cinematography is nice, but does not convey a lot of what Zola emphasizes in the novel: the heat and lack of space in the mine tunnels, etc.
A good movie if you haven't read the novel; a disappointing one if you have.
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.